A Legal Motion Demands Immediate Action to House Skid Row’s Homeless

A new filing in a lawsuit regarding the City and County’s response to homelessness in L.A. traces the current crisis to the 1970s

A new court filing in a landmark federal lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles asks a U.S. District judge to order unprecedented actions to house the unhoused, including requiring the city and county to offer housing to anyone living in the area of Skid Row.

Filed by attorneys suing the city and county on behalf of a group of downtown residents and business owners called the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, the motion for preliminary injunction traces the current catastrophe to 1976, when it says the city adopted a policy that contained “poor, disabled, mentally ill, and other marginalized people who were suffering or at risk of suffering homelessness” to the area that’s now famously known as Skid Row.

“To this day, Skid Row is an enforcement-free zone, effectively exempt from laws against anti-camping, prostitution, drug use and sales, and public intoxication, reinforcing the concentration of human tragedy in a one-square-mile area, while other areas thrive,” according to the filing, which cites decades-old documents and meeting minutes. “Indeed, just days ago, law enforcement cleared an encampment in Echo Park, only to relocate several [people experiencing homelessness] to Skid Row, powerfully portraying the persistence of the Policy.”

In addition to offering housing to anyone living “between 3rd and 8th Street to the North and South and Alameda and Main to the East and West,” the filing asks Judge David O. Carter to offer “other relief as the Court deems appropriate given the widespread effects” of both the City and County of L.A.’s policies. It asks for a plan to ensure the housing isn’t concentrated in the area, and it calls for the city and county to identify within five days land of at least 20 acres “that may be utilized to support shelter or housing.”

And once shelter is offered, the attorneys want the city clear sidewalks, public streets, and public places, and to prohibit camping “throughout the pendency of this injunction.”

It’s a major request in a lawsuit that’s already shaking the foundation of how Los Angeles addresses homelessness.

Filed in March 2020, the case accuses the city and county of squandering tax money meant to help people living on the streets, and it aims to redirect the multimillion dollar homelessness bureaucracy through broad court actions. It recently reached a crossroads as attorneys for the plaintiff business owners tried to broker a settlement with the city, the county moved to be dismissed from the case and Carter called for legal briefings about the extent of his powers.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the proposed settlement calls for the city to create shelter within five years for 60 percent of unhoused people, which is the same standard Carter has allowed in the approximately 15 settlements he’s overseeing in Orange County and in the L.A. County cities of Whittier and Bellflower. It also calls for a 33 percent reduction in the Skid Row homeless population, according to the Times, and would allow for the clearing of homeless encampments if people are first offered shelter.

But the City Council has yet to approve the settlement, and plaintiff attorney Elizabeth Mitchell told Los Angeles last month that she planned to seek the preliminary injunction if negotiations stalled. She declined to discuss the negotiations on Tuesday, but said: “At some point if a global settlement hasn’t happened—which it hasn’t—it’s time for court intervention.”

Mitchell and her co-counsel at the Los Angeles law firm Spertus, Landes & Umhofer, LLP, included with Monday’s filing a photo of the charred corpse of a man who died in an April 7 fire on Skid Row.

“The picture is gruesome and unsettling, and Plaintiffs hesitated to include it in this brief for that reason, but the horrific truth is that five people just like him will die each day in Los Angeles County this year and the parties need to see and address head-on this devastation,” according to the filing.

The city and county have not yet responded to the motion, which is scheduled to be considered May 10. That’s the same day Carter is to consider the county’s recent bid to rid itself of the lawsuit completely.

The motion gives Carter a clear path to implementing broader power over the city’s approach to homelessness without undertaking unilateral actions that could be more vulnerable to U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals challenges.

The judge has long criticized the effectiveness of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Earlier this year, after a daylong battle over a proposal to shelter women in tents in the parking lot of the Downtown Women’s Center, he ordered legal briefings about the extent of his powers, but he’s yet to make a move. He has, however, indicated that he may need help: In late February, he tried to involve the newly formed Social Justice Legal Foundation, of which he was a board member, and the law firm Hueston Hennigan LLP to assist him with research and information, but he stopped after attorneys objected.

Mitchell said Tuesday a preliminary injunction could “set the stage” for eventual broader actions by Carter, such as a receivership.

“If the city demonstrates the same level of failure as they have in the past, then ultimately I think a receivership is going to be the only thing that will resolve it,” Mitchell said.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a freelance journalist focused on legal affairs. Shes on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

RELATED: Major Decisions Loom in a Landmark Lawsuit Over Homelessness in Los Angeles

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