LA’s Settlement Deal in Homelessness Lawsuit Being Appealed

Critics have said the deal is a way for the city to enforce anti-homeless ordinances without substantively changing homeless services
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The city of Los Angeles’ settlement of a high-profile federal lawsuit brought by an advocacy group over the ongoing homelessness crisis may not be a done deal after all.

The settlement, approved in May, would build 14,000 to 16,000 new shelter beds in L.A. over five years that would house 60 percent of the homeless population. Now, the Skid Row advocacy group Los Angeles Community Action Network is appealing U.S. District Judge David O. Carter’s order signing off on the city’s agreement to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—building on what the group’s lawyer described in a June court hearing as “substantial concerns.”

“They’re seeking pre-enforcement approval for ordinances that haven’t even been written,” said Shayla Myers, senior attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, who is representing LACAN. “There is no case or controversy between the L.A. Alliance and the City of Los Angeles that would give rise to this type of agreement.”

Myers told Carter at the June 9 hearing that the judge doesn’t have the authority to approve enforcement of city ordinances that are not challenged in the lawsuit filed by L.A. Alliance—which consists of a group of business owners and people experiencing homelessness who sued the city and county in early 2020. The suit alleged that the city has ineffective municipal services that waste taxpayer money.

The notice of appeal filed Wednesday is from attorney Catherine Sweetser, who represents other intervening advocacy groups working with LACAN. No substantive briefing has yet been filed with the 9th Circuit and the settlement, as of now, is still in effect.

But that could change if the groups seek a stay from the appellate court. The opposition to the settlement has been widespread and it could increase. The AIDS Health Care Foundation was the first to formally oppose the deal before Carter, saying in a written opposition that it’s “easy to foresee that the people purportedly being helped will end up back on the streets, and then subjected to sanctions for living there.”

In June, L.A. Alliance lawyer Elizabeth Mitchell said in court that the top goal of the lawsuit has always been to increase the number of shelters. Housing the homeless, the disappearance of public spaces and the lack of mental health and substance use treatment have been ongoing issues.

“I hear that almost on a daily basis, ‘I just need help,’” Mitchell told the judge. “This agreement will give the help that we are so desperate for in Los Angeles.”

Mitchell told LAMag that the appeal is disappointing but not surprising. She said LACAN has refused to negotiate while the L.A. Alliance, city and county “have set aside their differences to work through numerous complex issues with the intention of taking a giant step towards crafting a comprehensive approach to addressing Los Angeles’s homelessness crisis.”

“Regardless of whatever their motives might be, this appeal seems to contradict the mission of LACAN,” Mitchell said, referring to the group’s aim to help those dealing with poverty create and discover opportunities. “The L.A. Alliance will continue to advocate on behalf of both unhoused and housed members of the community, since everyone deserves better than the status quo.”

Myers said Mitchell’s assertion that LACAN has refused to negotiate is false, and that LACAN and other intervening groups were excluded from negotiations by the city and L.A. Alliance.

“The first time Intervenors even saw any terms of the settlement was when they were publicly filed with the Court,” Myers said in an email to LAMag.

“LACAN’s fight against an agreement that purports to allow the city to harass, cite, and arrest houseless folks is entirely consistent with LACAN’s mission to promote human rights and address multiple forms of oppression faced by extremely low-income, predominately African-American and Latino, residents,” Myers said. “Our client has and always will fight back against attempts by politicians and property owners to criminalize homelessness instead of invest in actual solutions to the housing crisis in our city.”

The settlement gives Carter the power of enforcement for five years. But those individuals it will house doesn’t include the chronically mentally ill, who city officials say are the responsibility of the county. The exact number of beds the city will provide depends on the results of the next official count of L.A.s homeless population; meeting the settlement’s threshold will allow Carter to oversee the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances. The city estimates the number of new beds needed will be 14,000 to 16,000. 

Lawyers for the AIDS Health Care Foundation said that the actual number of people to be housed under the order is “very likely a small fraction of people experiencing homelessness in the city” and that the non-permanent housing shelter options it allows are “already known to fail.”

Carter’s two-page order doesn’t mention the foundation’s objections but says the deal “creates a structure and enforcement mechanism for the city to create a substantial number of new beds for people experiencing homelessness.”

Carter issued the order four days after brushing back criticism during a two-hour hearing on June 9. The judge spent a prolific year looking to change the very core of homeless services in Los Angeles as he oversaw the lawsuit during the early days of the pandemic. But the 9th Circuit vacated an injunction he’d issued, which blamed homelessness on systemic racism and ordered the city to offer housing to everyone on Skid Row within six months. Carter then began pushing for a settlement, including overseeing closed-door mediation sessions that led to the city’s April 1 announcement of a settlement with the L.A. Alliance. 

Myers told the judge during the June 9 hearing that the settlement’s definition of “other housing solutions” that meet the 60 percent threshold allows for the city to “fund a plane ticket home for an individual, and that would count towards the 60 percent.” 

Carter said the settlement is “far from perfect” and “will not, if I approve it, solve homelessness.”

But the goal isn’t 100 percent success.

“We just have to be more successful,” Carter said, adding that he’s pushed everyone “as hard as I possibly could” and hopes that he’s “affronted every one of you on occasion.” 

The judge also dismissed concerns about the settlement allowing for more shelter instead of housing, saying that a crucial 9th Circuit ruling in 2018 in Martin v. Boise refers to “shelter,” not housing.

“And if you can find anything about housing, I want you to quote that to me. It’s shelter.  And if it was housing, this Court would enforce housing, Carter said. “Where you end up in terms of shelter or where you end up in terms of housing first I could care less. Just do it.” 

The city has estimated the value of the settlement at $3 billion for a maximum of 16,000 beds, including the estimated value of the services provided for the people in the beds. Carter has frequently criticized the cost of homeless services in Los Angeles, including the amount of money the city spends on shelter beds and transitional housing—but he’s repeatedly cited the $3 billion figure as a reason to approve the deal.

Though Los Angeles County is not part of the settlement, outside counsel Louis “Skip” Miller questioned its legality, saying most of the 14,000 to 16,000 beds were planned, regardless of the lawsuit.

“I don’t understand how you can make an agreement to do something that’s already been committed to,” Miller said.

Miller also questioned the $1.8 million in attorney fees the deal calls for the city to pay L.A. Alliance, saying it didn’t “make a lot of sense;” Carter said he believed the figure was low and told Miller to “produce your paycheck” for comparison.  

“Just put on the table your contract with the county, along with all of your associates,” Carter said. He then told the L.A. Alliance lawyers that he was “happy to accept” the $1.8 million figure.

“If that’s the agreement between you and the city, I have no concern and no complaint,” Carter said.

The judge also appointed as settlement monitor—his longtime volunteer, Michele Martinez, who is a former Santa Ana city councilwoman. Carter said Martinez is “done working for free,” and he ordered the city to “work out some compensation with her,” calling her “one of the few virtuous people who’s been involved in this.”

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