‘We’re On It’: L.A. County Makes Its Case for Being Dropped from a Landmark Homelessness Lawsuit

At a virtual hearing today, an attorney for the county insisted to a judge, “We don’t belong in this lawsuit”

The landmark lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles went virtual Monday as an attorney urged Judge David O. Carter to dismiss the county from the case.

Appearing via Zoom, Louis “Skip” Miller told Carter the case against Los Angeles County essentially amounts to a complaint that county officials aren’t doing a good job combating homelessness, and that the plaintiffs believe the court can do better and should therefore intervene.

Maybe Carter can do better, Miller said, but the court’s role is to resolve disputes and controversies, not interfere in government functions. He said the county’s work isn’t perfect, “but we’re on it.”

“We don’t belong in this lawsuit. We’re going to continue to provide these services no matter what,” Miller said. “It’s an imperfect decision. That’s the nature of government. But we’re doing it.”

A lawyer for the business owners and downtown residents who filed the lawsuit questioned whether Miller “has even read the lawsuit.”

“It’s the county’s repeated failures that have brought us here and brought us to the brink,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, attorney for the plaintiff group L.A. Alliance for Human Rights.

Carter hasn’t yet decided whether to grant the dismissal request and it’s unclear when he’ll do so, but he told attorneys Monday’s hearing will be the last one that’s online. The next hearings—on May 26 and 27—will be in person at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles.

The dismissal request comes as the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the sweeping injunction Carter issued April 20 that calls for the city and county to offer housing to everyone on Skid Row by October.

The county filed an emergency motion asking for the injunction to be stayed by May 3, but the Ninth has yet to issue a ruling. It’s unclear when a decision could be issued, but Carter has left the door open for considerable changes that could lead to a delayed appellate review.

While the injunction includes sweeping orders with quick timelines, Carter, in a subsequent order, invited Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis to meet with him “pursuant to settlement discussions.” He also relented on two key parts of the injunction: a requirement that the city place in escrow $1 billion earmarked in the new budget for homelessness has been stayed for 60 days pending courtroom testimony about the money, and his order halting all new city land sales and transfers is on hold until a hearing scheduled for May 27.

Meanwhile, Carter isn’t forgetting about the county and city’s agreement to provide 5,300 beds by April 15, then another 1,400 within 18 months, with priority for people living near freeways. The judge ordered another hearing May 26 in Los Angeles to discuss the status, and he’s threatening to reinstate a preliminary injunction that predated the deal.

In a conversation with Los Angeles, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas says city and county officials have always viewed the freeway agreement as “tantamount to an order.”

“The question—in light of the fact that it’s nearly a year later—is what has really been accomplished, and if in fact that is the wiser use of our relatively limited resources,” added Ridley-Thomas, whose Council District 10 includes South Central Los Angeles. “That question has yet to be satisfyingly answered.”

“I think it’s reasonable to pose the question to the author of the idea or the order. In other words, the judge,” the councilman continued. “The judge has yet to answer the question of is it the case that what he had hoped to be accomplished has in fact been accomplished.”

But despite the appeals, Ridley-Thomas says he’s under strict marching orders to adhere to the injunction as it currently stands.

“Pursuant to the city attorney and other legal counsel who I consulted, there is pretty widespread agreement that there’s an order that’s been issued by a federal judge, and we had better comply,” Ridley-Thomas says. “The city attorney has opined accordingly.”

Within 30 days, the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee—which Ridley-Thomas chairs—is to report to Carter about specific actions to address structural racism, the possibility of rezoning for more multi-family housing, and “solutions to the problem of extremely low income individuals being foreclosed from the affordable housing market in favor of higher-income individuals.”

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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