The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday postponed consideration of an ordinance targeting homeless encampments following public outcry and indications of a divided council.
A vote still appears imminent, however. Council President Nury Martinez referred the proposal to the council’s Homelessness and Poverty committee and reminded her colleagues: “I do expect this item to return to council sometime in the near future.”
“We owe it to every single one of our neighborhoods, particularly those neighborhoods that have been impacted by the overwhelming number of encampments,” Martinez said. “It’s not sanitary, and it’s certainly not safe or part of public health to continue to live with the current status quo. That simply is not working for anyone.”
District 3 Councilman Bob Blumenfield proposed the ordinance following an outreach effort in his San Fernando Valley district that moved 60 people from 101 freeway underpasses into housing and services.
Blumenfield said the ordinance—which bans camping in most public spaces, including near freeways and buildings that offer homeless services—is needed to keep the underpasses clear of campers as part of a federal lawsuit against the city and county by downtown residents and business owners upset over growing homeless encampments and wasted taxpayer money.
The judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, helped Blumenfield with the outreach efforts and has toured encampments all over Los Angeles since taking over the lawsuit last March.
His current focus is an agreement between the city and county that calls for the creation of 6,700 beds by April 2021, with placement priority for people living under or over freeways, as well as elderly and other vulnerable people temporarily housed in hotels through the county’s Project Roomkey program.
At the most recent court hearing on November 5, the judge said that the council discussion about anti-camping enforcement and housing is “backwards.”
“I’m not going to let the city do anything until you’ve got the housing,” Carter said.
But Carter also said he’s never worked with a city that had no ordinances in place regarding camping in public places. Restrictions on public camping enable outreach workers to present unhoused people with what Carter calls “choice dates,” or dates by which they have the choice to access services or not. He and Blumenfield said these are key to motivating people to leave the San Fernando underpasses.
“It worked not just because we had intensive outreach, but because we had a choice date,” Blumenfield said. “We believe we would be able to humanely enforce this choice date and no police were involved; everyone was offered shelter.”
A similar outreach effort near the Penmar Golf Course in District 11 Councilman Mike Bonin’s Venice-area district took longer and was eventually aided by a planned tree trimming that required campers to move.
Blumenfield quoted Bonin telling Carter the public works project “did incentivize people to make a choice.”
And because the encampment was cleared due to tree trimming, the city erected a fence to keep people from camping there. Blumenfield can’t do that in his district because people were moved from the 101 freeways as part of the federal lawsuit, and the city has no ordinance to prevent people from camping there again.
“Consequently, abandoned property still litters my underpasses, and a few people are starting to set up camps again in the underpasses,” Blumenfield said Tuesday.
Bonin has proposed a substitute motion that focuses on commandeering hotels, expanding Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority programs, and asking Carter to broker a settlement similar to one he brokered in a 2018 lawsuit in Orange County, which led to new housing but no arrests.
“The people who are calling in and telling the council we’re taking the wrong approach, they were part of the agreement,” Bonin said, advocating “not a district-by-district approach where we push homelessness from district to district but a master agreement with Judge Carter.”
The cities with settlements under Carter include not only most of north Orange County but the Los Angeles County cities of Whittier and Bellflower as well. Whittier and Bellflower both voluntarily entered the Orange County lawsuit so they could strike settlements that include consent decrees with Carter, who is helping with outreach and shelter efforts.
Blumenfield said Los Angeles can’t reach a similar settlement unless it has enforcement options that give a “choice date” for services.
“We as a city should be able to regulate encampments without criminalizing them,” Blumenfield said. “If we cannot regulate them, we do a disservice to the people who live within them and we do a disservice to the people who live in the communities around them.”
Senior assistant city attorney Valerie Flores also recommended the council consider the proposal soon, telling the council members on Tuesday, “We do believe we need to fix our current ordinances, so we appreciate the speed in which you can look at this and make the policy calls we know are difficult.”
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who chairs the Homelessness and Poverty Committee that will refine the proposal, said the city will eventually need “some level of enforcement…once we have the [housing] inventory.”
“And I know there are people who do not want to hear that,” O’Farrell said. “The enforcement we eventually adopt can and should be unarmed, and it should involve those teams who really work hard to help people get into shelter and wellness. But we’re not there yet.”
Martinez mentioned the loud opposition to the ordinance, which has included protests with megaphones outside council members’ homes.
“You’ve been personally threatened along with your family, and I completely sympathize with that,” Martinez said. “We are living through very uncertain times, but at the same time we have an obligation to make decisions; that’s what we were elected to do.”
Some residents say the ordinance is a necessary step toward cleaning streets and reclaiming public spaces, while others decry it as a cruel way of criminalizing poverty.
Activist groups celebrated the tabling of the ordinance. On Twitter, Los Angeles Community Action Network wrote that that the decision shows “grassroots power is on the rise in Los Angeles, and the criminalization button is no longer a guaranteed option.”
A few things are clear: 1) grassroots power is on the rise in Los Angeles, and the criminalization button is no longer a guaranteed option; 2) organizing has broken the practice of stacked votes and has forced public debate; 3) council seats are not safe, and a new LA is possible https://t.co/qpREV4ZK6y
— LA CAN (@LACANetwork) November 21, 2020
Meghann Cuniff is a freelance reporter focused on legal affairs. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanncuniff.
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