On Tuesday, Los Angeles City Council members instructed the city to allow homeless people to leave their tents up during daylight hours in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. The emergency motion, which was introduced by councilmembers Mike Bonin, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Gil Cedillo, is meant to make it easier for individuals living in encampments “to comply with public health advice and directives regarding hygiene and social distancing,” and will go into effect once it’s signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti in the coming days.
In addition to partially suspending Municipal Code 56.11, which bans tents from being erected between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., the city will now provide around-the-clock portable toilets, dumpsters, and vermin-proof trash cans; hand-washing stations with soap and water; and weekly shower services to all major encampments. Parks and libraries—which often serve as hygiene facilities for homeless individuals but have shuttered in recent days—will be required to keep their restrooms open 24 hours a day, as will government buildings.
And CM’s Cedillo, Harris- Dawson, and I are proposing more aggressive ways to house the #homeless – housing people in motels and city prop. reopening restrooms, and fixing encampment procedures that put at risk the public health of the unhoused and housed alike.
— Mike Bonin-Official (@MikeBoninLA) March 17, 2020
City agencies have also been asked produce a list of vacant or under-used city properties that could be used for emergency housing in the near future or that could be established as “Emergency Safe Camping Zones.” In these zones, unhoused individuals would sleep six feet apart and receive hygiene services.
During Tuesday’s marathon meeting, which lasted for more than seven hours, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interim director Heidi Marston said that forcing homeless people to dismantle their tents during a pandemic was “not optimal” from a public health perspective. Councilmember Bonin, who co-authored the motion, agreed, asserting that the city should not be making it more difficult for an already-vulnerable population to comply with public health officials’ advice. “People who do not have shelter, we are telling them to shelter in place,” said Bonin. “I think that underscores the sort of absurdity of the moment.”
However, a handful of councilmembers expressed concern that allowing tents to remain in place would prevent the city’s CARE+ team from keeping sidewalks clean, potentially worsening public health issues. “I can’t think of a worse time to suspend or be confused about our approach in how we tend to where the existing encampments are,” said Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. Bonin said that these regular sidewalk sweeps—which do require homeless people to dismantle their encampments—would not be stopped as a result of the motion.
Just before the motion was passed, a section that would have prevented the city from confiscating items in excess of 60 gallons was removed.
Since long before the outbreak of COVID-19, homeless advocates have been urging the city to stop enforcing “anti-camping” laws and to halt encampment sweeps, which they say separate the unhoused from critical services and result in the loss of supplies necessary for survival. In recent weeks, the spread of the novel coronavirus has made these issue all the more pressing—homeless people, who run double the risk off catching the virus and are more likely to suffer dangerous complications from it, often have no other place to self-quarantine then their tents.
Last week, the homeless advocacy organization Services Not Sweeps released a set of coronavirus guidelines for public officials that includes calls to halt both daytime “tents down” enforcement and CARE+ sweeps. Jed Parriott, a spokesperson for the organization, said that although sidewalk cleaning-related sweeps won’t be stopped as a result of this motion, it is a good start. “Even before coronavirus, this is stuff that had to be done yesterday to address public health,” he said.
He hopes similar policies will continue to be implemented even after the pandemic wanes. “I think this moment is one where we can hopefully show that there’s a different approach that we should be taking to people’s servicing homelessness, that could be better for everybody’s health and a better long-term solution,” he said.