‘A Legacy of Racism’: Judge Issues Bold Order to House Skid Row’s Homeless

In an injunction filed Tuesday, Judge David O. Carter sets a timeline for housing the homeless on Skid Row—and restricts Mayor Garcetti’s nearly billion-dollar homeless plan

Describing “a legacy of entrenched structural racism” in the city and county of Los Angeles, a federal judge is requiring an accounting of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s new $951 million budget for homelessness within seven days, part of a broad order that also mandates housing offers for everyone on Skid Row, and freezes the sale and transfers of all city properties pending a study of potential housing sites.

The 110-page order issued Tuesday details the history of homelessness in Los Angeles and discriminatory policies that led to a crisis U.S. District Judge David O. Carter says warrants immediate and drastic action. From post-Great Depression redlining and the midcentury freeway-building boom to a deliberate effort to contain homelessness to Skid Row, Carter describes vast constitutional violations that require court intervention akin to the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling Brown v. Board of Education.

“In Brown, the analysis centered around the value of attending integrated schools,” according to the order. “Here, Black people, and Black women in particular, are dying at exponentially higher rates than their white counterparts, and these disparate death rates can be directly traced to a history of structural racism and discrimination.”

Judge Carter acknowledged the extraordinary nature of his order, writing that his conclusion “advances equal protection jurisprudence, but it is wholly consistent with and flows naturally from analogous federal statutes, rulemakings, and executive actions.”

The order requires the city to offer housing within 90 days to all “unaccompanied women and children living in Skid Row,” within 120 days for all families, and within 180 days “to the general population.” It specifies that once shelter is offered, Carter “will let stand” ordinances against homeless encampments consistent with previous appellate court rulings, which could clear the way for consistent sweeps and new city laws barring encampments virtually everywhere.

But the order also restricts city spending and real estate transactions and mandates independent audits and investigations, including into developers currently receiving money from the 2016 Proposition HHH, which earmarked $1.2 billion for housing and mental services. The city can’t sell or transfer any of its at least 14,000 properties until City Controller Ron Galperin and county counsel analyze the land for possible housing sites.

“The homeless have been left no other place to turn to but our beaches, parks, libraries, and sidewalks, and it is pivotal that they no longer rely on spaces that enhance quality of life for all citizens,” according to the order, which references President Abraham Lincoln five times.

judge david o. carter
In February 2018, Judge David O. Carter addresses reporters and both sides of a lawsuit regarding homelessness in Orange County

Jeff Gritchen/OC Register via Getty Images

Further, Carter ordered into escrow the nearly $1 billion Mayor Eric Garcetti announced this week for homelessness, and demanded a report and accounting of funding streams within seven days. He called the Project Roomkey hotel housing project “embarrassing” and said it doesn’t inspire confidence “to say the least, in the city’s new budget.”

“From mishandling Project Roomkey to sinking $1.2 billion into the ever-delinquent Proposition HHH, Los Angeles has documented a long history of plans or budgets that have fallen short year after year, as the homelessness crisis worsens.”

“I would say roadblocks masquerading as progress are the last things we need.” —Mayor Eric Garcetti

Garcetti questioned the legality of the order during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, saying that to anyone “or a court that decides to get in the way, I would say, ‘Stay out of our way.’”

“I would say roadblocks masquerading as progress are the last things we need,” Garcetti said. “Maybe it’s that I’ve spent too long in city hall understanding how this place works and how folks who have impressions from the outside in try to intervene in how that money is used,” the mayor continued. “But as I said, things that are impossible and things that maybe are illegal are certainly things we cannot do.”

Garcetti questioned Carter’s housing order for Skid Row, said HHH money can’t be reallocated, and questioned whether the injunction will derail longtime plans to prioritize permanent housing over short-term shelter.

“There’s a separation of powers that I hope folks won’t walk over,” Garcetti said. “I’m happy to help inform—whether it’s a judicial official like Judge Carter or anyone else—what we can legally and not legally do.”

He also appeared to criticize the intent and posture of Carter’s order, saying, “I am not interested in headlines; I’m interested in progress.”

“This is not about beating our chests. This is about defeating homelessness,” Garcetti said. “People are not interested in testosterone matches. I think they’re interested in that money hitting the ground.”

An appeal appears imminent. On behalf of Los Angeles County, attorney Louis “Skip” Miller said the order “goes well beyond what the Plaintiffs have asked for. We’re now evaluating our options, including the possibility of an appeal.”

He said the injunction lacks a legal basis “because the County is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on proven strategies that have produced measurable results throughout the region, not just on Skid Row.”

“It’s imperative we stay the course and not be distracted by apparent quick fixes, which will only make this complex societal problem even worse,” Miller said in an email.

Carter still must rule on the county’s motion to dismiss. A hearing is scheduled May 10, but he issued Tuesday’s injunction without a hearing, saying the last year had essentially been 12 evidentiary hearings, and he could do the same with the county’s dismissal bid. He also appears to have issued the injunction without considering oppositions filed late Monday, including from attorneys for the Los Angeles Community Action Network who warned an injunction would “elevate form over substance” and favor shelter “over real housing solutions.”

Attorney Elizabeth Mitchell, who represents the coalition of downtown business owners and residents suing the city and county, praises Carter’s order as “completely right on.”

“We had intended to go about it a little bit more methodically, but Judge Carter, you know what, he sees what he sees. He sees the evidence that all the city and county have been denying, so why wait until later to really start issuing orders that can substantively and effectively change the trajectory of this crisis?” Mitchell says.

Mitchell says the major question she’s asked about Carter’s order is, “Can he do this?”

“The answer to that is he can,” Mitchell says. “Judge Carter’s order is detailed and very specific about the findings, and it’s also very specific that in the face of an emergency, the courts have really broad emergency powers.”

Carter’s injunction is a decisive end to the seemingly cooperative nature that dominated the case since the suit was filed in March 2020. Attorneys agreed to forgo traditional courtroom litigation and instead allow Carter to try to guide settlement negotiations through usually taboo conversations with people not directly involved in the case, as well as in-person visits to homeless encampments and shelter and housing services across Los Angeles County. But tensions escaped amid a threatened order last year that led to an agreement by the city and county to provide 5,300 new beds by April 15, with priority for people living under or over freeways, and a dispute with Carter over using the Downtown Women’s Center parking lot to shelter unhoused women during a January rainstorm. Settlement negotiations were still going on as of last month, but the plaintiffs warned they would request an injunction if those negotiations stalled.

Garcetti said Tuesday he’s still hopeful they can settle the case, but Mitchell said the injunction accomplishes a great deal.

“This is finally the FEMA-like response that everyone says they want,” Mitchell said.


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

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