Helping the homeless by order of the court
A judge demands results from Los Angeles city and county
Business owners in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles say they can’t make a living anymore because tents and trash crowd the sidewalks, while human waste and used needles create environmental and health hazards.
Unsatisfied with the city’s response to Skid Row’s homelessness crisis, frustrated business owners and residents filed a lawsuit against the city and county of Los Angeles. After several unorthodox hearings, including one in a homeless shelter’s parking lot, last month Judge David Carter ordered the city and county to offer housing for all of Skid Row’s homeless residents within 180 days—90 days for women and children. Some are hopeful that Carter’s actions will cut through the sluggish bureaucracy that has hindered LA in the past, but others are skeptical that the order will produce meaningful change.
The lawsuit included the complaints of property owners such as Lisa Rich, who must offer steep discounts to woo tenants to Skid Row. She also pays four times her previous fire insurance premium and had to pay $80,000 in fire damage repairs. Mark Shinbane said he struggles to find and keep employees and constantly has to fund repairs and sanitize his building. Larry Rauch spends double his previous costs on security and cleaning to retain employees and maintain required certifications.
“Enforcement of homeless-related crimes has been reduced, or in some cases eliminated, in the name of compassion. But allowing people to die on the streets isn’t compassionate; it’s cruel,” the lawsuit said. “The solutions currently under official consideration are too few, too expensive, and take too long.”
Last spring, Carter questioned numerous city officials and employees during a hearing, writing ideas for cheap housing on a dry-erase board and assigning city and nonprofit workers to hammer out plans. In June 2020, the city agreed to provide 6,000 new beds for the homeless by spring of 2021—a compromise after Carter ordered them in May to relocate 7,000 people camping near freeway overpasses. In October, council members proposed an ordinance to ban people from sitting or sleeping within 500 feet of certain freeway overpasses or 10 feet of building entrances on public property. It would only apply if the area had sufficient shelter to offer homeless people instead. Despite these stops, Carter told officials in October, “You are already so far behind it’s disgraceful.”
The 100-plus-page order Carter issued on April 20 covers the history of Skid Row, previous government inaction, and why LA’s homelessness is an emergency situation, among other things. Carter gave the city and county some specific orders in addition to his mandate that they house the homeless population on Skid Row. He also demanded they place $1 billion in escrow and account for the funding streams within a week. He demanded an audit within 90 days of all funds directed towards homelessness, as well as a report on city-owned property that could become housing.
Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters that he shared the judge’s sense of urgency but “putting a billion dollars in escrow that doesn’t exist doesn’t seem possible.” The day Carter issued the ruling, Garcetti released a budget proposal that included nearly $1 billion to fight homelessness. The last week of April, the judge revised his order to say that the city doesn’t have to keep the $1 billion in escrow, but it had to submit a detailed $1 billion homelessness action plan within 60 days, The Los Angeles Times reported. Garcetti said the timeline of offering shelter to every homeless person on Skid Row by October would be “an unprecedented pace not just for Los Angeles but any place that I’ve ever seen with homelessness in America.”
Stephen Eide studies homelessness at the Manhattan Institute. He, too, is skeptical that Carter’s order will produce solutions for Los Angeles: “Law enforcement and mental health reform have to be part of the solution,” he said. “No city has ever built its way out of homelessness.” He pointed out that besides just shelter, cities serious about helping the homeless will need to invest in substance abuse and mental health treatment, job training, and child care.
“The problem is never just inadequate resources,” he said. “The street homeless population have contradictory demands. Some want safety; others want maximum personal freedom. Some want to keep using drugs; some want to be away from drugs. Some people just want to be left alone.”
John Ashmen is president of Citygate Network, a group of faith-based crisis shelters. He said that Los Angeles’ policies miss “the spiritual and relational poverty that have put so many people on the streets.” Christians living in places like LA often know they should care for the poor but don’t know where to start. Ashmen advises them to volunteer at a local rescue mission. He added that churches should not do open feeding programs: “The intentions are admirable, but nobody ever escaped poverty through a feeding program. Work with organizations that are already providing such services and are monitoring physical and mental health and bringing people along with conversations about accountability and life transformation.”
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