Inside a Judge’s Controversial Crusade to Solve Homelessness in L.A.

As he presides over a lawsuit against the city and county over conditions in homeless encampments, 76-year-old Judge David O. Carter finds himself at the crux of one of the most pressing issues in the region
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As fury rose over a Los Angeles City Council proposal to criminalize camping near freeways and homeless services buildings, an effort was underway to help 60 unhoused people living under the 101 freeway in the San Fernando Valley.

Signs posted for two weeks warned of an October 27 moving deadline, but the day came and went with no enforcement: everyone moved to shelter, mental health services, or drug detox on their own. They were guided not only by outreach workers and volunteers but by a federal judge whose interest in solving homelessness has involved unprecedented, in-person meetings with the unhoused.

That judge, David O. Carter, has found himself at the center of a battle about where the unhoused should and should not be permitted to live. Carter is presiding over a lawsuit filed in March against the city and county of Los Angeles by an alliance of downtown business owners and residents who say homeless encampments are unsafe and inhumane, and that tax money meant to solve the crisis has been wasted. His recommendations set into motion the effort to clear freeway underpasses and overpasses, which has raised the hackles of activists. In recent weeks, advocacy groups including Ktown for All have confronted both City Attorney Mike Feuer and Councilman Bob Blumenfield’s at their respective homes over the potential criminalization of living outdoors in close proximity to freeways, buildings that provide homeless services, or in a way that blocks pathways under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Blumenfield worked with Carter on the moves in his San Fernando district, and he proposed the ordinance along with Councilmembers Joe Buscaino, Paul Krekorian, Monica Rodriguez, Gil Cedillo, John Lee, and Curren Price. City Council President Nury Martinez continued consideration of it to November 24 after hearing last week from angry callers, at least a few of whom were in favor of the proposal, and a divided council.

Also unresolved is a substitute motion from Councilman Mike Bonin, who said Blumenfield’s proposal is unreasonable because “genuine alterantives” are not “truly available and accessible.” Bonin’s motion instead proposes instructing the city attorney to provide information on how to commandeer hotels for homeless housing, directs Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to significantly expand its encampment to homes programs, and asks Carter to broker a settlement similar to the one he brokered in a 2018 lawsuit in Orange County, which, the motion reads, “led to the housing of thousands of unhoused residents and left public rights of way free of encampments without a single arrest.”

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A message to Judge Carter outside a home in Mike Bonin’s council district

Meghann Cuniff

Theo Henderson, a member of the activist group Ground Game L.A., criticized Martinez in an interview, saying Blumenfield’s ordinance should have been rejected outright. Henderson likes Bonin’s proposal, but he finds it difficult to trust any housing proposals because council members instead “are always introducing anti-unhoused policies on a vulnerable population.”

“That’s the thing that really annoys me. You know these people have no place to go,” says Henderson, who hosts the podcast We the Unhoused.

The San Fernando Valley outreach efforts are the most visible work in Los Angeles yet from Carter. In the midst of district tours with council members and county supervisors, spontaneous visits to Skid Row, and private meetings with homeless advocates and city stakeholders, Carter also recently helped with a two-week effort to move unhoused people in the city of Whittier, which voluntarily joined the Orange County lawsuit with Carter last year, along with the city of Bellflower.

Whittier opened its first shelter September 1 and its 139 beds are nearly full. Police can now enforce anti-camping ordinances there under a four-year consent decree with Carter that’s part of the Orange County case. But Pastor Don Dermit, who runs the homeless outreach nonprofit Helping HandUps, says police haven’t been needed.

“This is just spending the time to talk to them and ask them, ‘What do you want?’ Not tell people what to do, but to listen and be a good listener,” says Dermit, who met Carter at an Orange County encampment in early 2018. “He’s out there because he truly, truly has the compassion and he cares. He wants to understand the people and understand their struggles.”

Carter’s commitment to ending homelessness helped spark a growing social services network in Orange County, but the lawsuit in Los Angeles has proven more difficult. After being greeted with adoration at the first court hearing in March—Mayor Eric Garcetti declared it “the first meeting of the Judge Carter Fan Club, Los Angeles chapter”—Carter encountered such inaction regarding new housing that he threatened to issue an order requiring all unhoused people living near freeways to move by September 1. The city and county hatched their own agreement to thwart the order, promising in June to provide 6,000 new beds within ten months, and 700 more within 18 months. Only 700 can be from existing agreements, and it specifies the beds are to be prioritized for unhoused people “living within 500 feet of freeway overpasses, underpasses and ramps within the City of Los Angeles” and calls for Carter’s “approval, monitoring, and enforcement.” Estimates put the freeway population at about 3,000; the other 3,700 beds are aimed at people housed through the pandemic-driven hotel plan Project Roomkey and the recreation centers that were converted to shelters.

In an interview, Blumenfield details plans for new housing in his district, including 125 units that can house up to two people, 125 Project Roomkey double-capacity motel rooms that will converted to homes, a 36-bed shelter for domestic violence victims, an approximately 20-bed treatment center program, and an 80- to 90-unit bridge home.

“It’s about housing. It’s about treatment. It’s about trying to meet people where they’re at and to get people off the streets in a positive way,” Blumenfield says.

He claims his controversial proposed ordinance is needed to keep the recently cleared 101 underpasses free of campers. “Frankly, it’s going to be difficult between now and when we do pass an ordinance because we don’t have the explicit authority,” Blumenfield says.

Advocates for unhoused people—including Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and an intervenor in the Los Angeles lawsuit—questioned the authority behind Carter’s involvement in Blumenfield’s district in an October 16 court document.

“The operation is not being conducted pursuant to any publicly filed court order on record in this case,” Myers wrote. “It is being planned and executed away from public view and without any participation of parties that are adverse to the City of Los Angeles.”

Attorneys for the residents and business owners who initiated the lawsuit dismissed her concerns, writing in their reply: “The suggestion that the Court is somehow acting out of bounds by doing exactly what it is required to do and what each party has asked it to do—supervise the implementation of the City and County’s Agreement—is without merit. And any suggestion that because the Court is facilitating the supervision by meeting council members in the field and actually observing the process outside of the sterile environment of the federal courthouse (or city council chambers) is similarly without merit.”

The outreach in the San Fernando Valley began after Judge Carter noted in a September court hearing that Blumenfield had reported enough progress on new housing to justify enforcement of anti-camping ordinances in accordance with the 9th Circuit ruling Martin v. City of Boise, which prohibits the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances if no alternative shelter is available.

At the same hearing, Councilman Bonin delivered bad news to Carter: encampments in his Venice-area district “are growing substantially,” and it may be because so much focus on people near freeways is diverting attention from other areas.

“I would like to invite you to come out again, as you have offered to do, to Venice and Globe with some of the outreach workers and me as we go about continuing to offer services,” Bonin said.

“Hours don’t mean anything to me. What are you doing this afternoon?” Carter said. “Excellent. I’ll see you between 2 and 5.”

Later that night, a handful of Venice residents stood outside their homes with “SOS Carter” signs, cheering the judge as he drove by.

“He’s basically like a rock star in this community,” says Jenny Cooney, a Venice homeowner. “Everybody else has kind of an agenda and other motives. Judge Carter is the only one who’s just simply and tirelessly working to try to get the city and county together to get people off the streets.”

Carter and Bonin posed for photos in front of “fuck Judge Carter” graffiti during their visit to the 405 freeway underpass at Venice Boulevard that afternoon, and Carter introduced himself to the man who painted it. They visited Venice encampments again October 6, and on October 8 Bonin announced an effort to find housing for 100 unhoused people living in an encampment next to the Penmar Golf Course on Rose Avenue. The program has been in the works for months, and 70 people have been housed as of October 28, Bonin says.

The same day as Bonin’s announcement, city and county officials were at a mediation ordered by U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte, who is working with Carter on the lawsuit and is beginning to share Carter’s frustration with the lack of progress.

“The Court is extremely disappointed and dismayed that in the nearly four months since the parties reached a ‘historic agreement to provide 6,700 beds and shelter opportunities, with services, for people experiencing homelessness,’ the parties continue to bicker, waste time and not finalize a memorandum of understanding,” Birotte wrote. “While it should be unnecessary, the Court feels compelled to remind the parties that the challenge of homelessness, and the parties’ decades-long inability to jointly address it, has plagued this region for more than 30 years.”

The mediation had results: the county and city agreed on a funding method for the 6,700 beds.

Most recently, the attorneys who initiated the lawsuit requested a public accounting of Los Angeles County’s mental health coffers, funded by the Mental Health Services Act, a 2004 ballot measure. (One of the lawsuit’s claims is misuse of public money.)

“As of early 2020, approximately $1 billion MHSA money remained in Los Angeles County coffers unspent, while thousands of mentally ill remain in crisis on the streets. To Plaintiffs’ knowledge, some of those funds have since been allocated, but the ultimate benefit to those who are in crisis is questionable,” according to the request.

Carter has repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of the city and county’s homeless services bureaucracy, telling representatives of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority at an August hearing on the 6,700 bed plan: “If you fail, there’s no reason for you to exist.”

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Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Carter—now 76—was raised in Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California, and graduated UCLA before he enlisted in the U.S Marine Corps. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star as a lieutenant in the Vietnam War, surviving devastating injuries that hospitalized him for months and inspired him to devote his life to public service. He returned to California, graduated UCLA School of Law, and was a homicide prosecutor in Orange County before becoming a municipal court judge in 1981, then a superior court judge a year later. He unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986, then was appointed to the federal bench in 1998. He brought with him his reputation as a ruthless but fair jurist who expected everyone around him to share his remarkable work ethic, says Jennifer Keller, a trial attorney who first met him when she was an Orange County deputy public defender in the late 1970s.

Keller calls Carter’s work in Los Angeles “vintage Dave Carter.”

“For me, it’s a natural extension of his efforts in the past to see him reaching out to the most vulnerable people in our society,” Keller says. “He is, however, very difficult to appear before. He’s not for the faint of heart. He can be very short with people and holds everybody else to the same insane standards or work and stamina that he himself displays, which are impossible for many of us.” In October, he rappelled down the side of a 25-story building in Universal City to raise money for Union Rescue Mission.

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Carter at a fundraiser for Union Rescue Mission on October 2

Michele Martinez

Carter has long been known for keeping attorneys in court until late into the night and enjoys asking his court reporter to announce the latest they’ve ever been on the record: 1:30 a.m. He’s also notorious for his spontaneous requests for immediate courtroom appearances by corporate executives, supervising attorneys, or any other potential decision makers he feels should be more involved. His caseload has run the gamut between criminal cases against the Mexican Mafia and Aryan Brotherhood, a lawsuit over President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, MGA Entertainment and Mattel’s intellectual property battle over the Bratz dolls—Keller represented MGA—and Anna Nicole Smith’s multimillion-dollar probate battle.

The homeless crisis may be the most challenging issue of his career “because the problem is so intractable,” Keller says. “But he’s a person who doesn’t see anything as intractable. He won’t give up until a solution is found.”

Carter for years has handled high-stakes conflicts, judicial training, and counter-terrorism work worldwide, including in Iraq, Kosovo, China, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

“For all the folks who think it’s dangerous for him to walk around with homeless people in L.A. [during a pandemic], I’m not downplaying that, but he’s been in far more dangerous situations,” U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, a partner in a Los Angeles law firm and a close friend of Carter, says in a phone interview. “He’s got a tremendous reservoir of courage, and he’s willing to do anything that he thinks will help the mission.”

The coronavirus pandemic’s surge in March halted Carter’s scheduled U.S. State Department, U.S. Justice Department, and United Nations visits to Pakistan, the Republic of Maldives, and Sri Lanka, and he hasn’t flown internationally since a February visit to Tunisia. He frequently cites his overseas experiences when imploring action on the homeless crisis, and he sometimes shares photos of refugee camps and other efforts he says underscore how ineffective the United States’ approach to homelessness is.

The judge’s first on-the-ground involvement in the homeless crisis occurred when Orange County tried to dismantle a 1,000-person encampment near the Anaheim riverbed in 2018. In his only public comments about the issue, he told a crowd at a United Way event on homelessness last December that seeing the conditions of the camp and talking to the people who lived there was “one of the most humbling experiences I took.”

“In that walk along the river, I met a lot of folks. Some were criminals. Some, quite frankly, should have been in jail a long time ago, and no matter what you do they’re never going into shelter. But an awful lot weren’t,” Carter said in a speech he gave at a United Way event in 2019. “An awful lot were people who had mental health issues; they had broken homes. I was astounded with the number of women and veterans out there. I was astounded by the number of encampments etc., and it really brought me to my knees.”

He told the crowd: “Our public is not going to stand for homeless people taking our parks and our beaches and our libraries. But also, our public’s not going to stand for the truly harmless person who has either mental disease or is just homeless because of circumstances being incarcerated. And that’s a tough balance. I think we can achieve that.”

Carter was joined on stage by Michele Martinez, who earned the judge’s admiration for her work in the Orange County case as a Santa Ana city councilwoman. He appointed her to be an unpaid special master in the Los Angeles lawsuit, which in federal court is essentially a case manager. The work typically goes to lawyers and retired judges, of which Martinez is neither. But Carter credits her with the speedy opening of a shelter in Santa Ana, and he relies on her knowledge of politics and municipal government to help him navigate the Los Angeles lawsuit.

Martinez, who has helped mediate between the county and city and is a point person for Carter, said she never expected to be so involved in a federal court case but has seen her life transformed by the work and her friendship with Carter.

“I have come to understand that the homeless system cannot be destroyed unless ways of thinking are destroyed, and if ways of thinking do change, nothing can keep the physical and social system from changing,” Martinez says.

Three southern O.C. cities argued for Carter’s recusal from a related lawsuit last year, calling him an advocate for the unhoused who couldn’t be fair.

Carter’s commendations in Orange County include a huge mural of his face alongside the phrase “the harder the battle” inside a Santa Ana shelter that opened under his watch in the Orange County case. He hasn’t been welcome everywhere: the southern O.C. cities of San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, and Aliso Viejo successfully argued for his recusal from a related lawsuit last year, calling him an advocate for the unhoused who couldn’t be fair. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department isn’t currently enforcing anti-camping ordinances in those cities because they won’t open shelters.

Carter’s next hearing in the Los Angeles case is Thursday, November 5, at City Hall. Late Wednesday afternoon, he ordered the city and county to provide “explanation and solutions” for a rise in homeless deaths, saying deaths are up 36 percent in Los Angeles County this year, 1,141 in the first ten months compared to 837 in the same period last year.


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