Los Angeles leaders are expected to begin settlement talks that may lead to a plan to house many of the city’s 36,000 residents experiencing homelessness, and subsequently allow the enforcement of the city’s sometimes controversial “quality of life” laws, according to a councilman who appeared before a federal judge last week.
The City Council moved to “authorize the city attorney to begin negotiations with the plaintiffs that would establish district-by-district settlement agreements,” Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the city’s South Bay communities, told U.S. District Judge David O. Carter during a Thursday, April 23, hearing in the Palm Court ballroom of the downtown Alexandria Hotel.
The hearing was part of free-wheeling weeks-long proceedings launched by a lawsuit against the city and county brought by the L.A. Alliance, a coalition of Downtown-area business owners, formerly homeless people and disabled city residents. The suit alleges not enough has been done to address a countywide crisis that has ballooned to nearly 60,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Despite the closure of federal courts during the eruption of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the federal judge has called for emergency hearings to be held on the case due to the public health risks faced by the homeless population at this time. Responses to the outbreak, such as the placement of hundreds of hygiene stations, and the county’s “Operation Roomkey” strategy to place homeless people in vacant motel and hotel rooms around the region, have also gotten entangled in the ongoing case.
The open-ended series of courtroom sessions started with the specific goal of tackling worsening conditions for homeless people L.A.’s Skid Row. But Carter, regarded as an unconventional legal firebrand with a specific interest in the homeless issue, is expected to expand discussion to the big-picture issues raised by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and faced by unsheltered people countywide. Participants have included high-profile local leaders including county supervisors and City Attorney Mike Feuer and Mayor Eric Garcetti as well as homeless advocates and business owners — and even included tours by the facemask-wearing judge himself of areas hard-hit by poverty and homelessness, despite “Safer at Home” orders raising concern over COVID-19’s spread.
The suit aims to force public officials to create and adhere to a timeline to reduce homelessness, provide tens of thousands of beds and find homes or shelters for an estimated 60,000 people countywide.
In what was viewed as a milestone, Buscaino said on Thursday told the judge that the council has agreed to work toward a plan that includes making available a required number of beds for unsheltered homeless people, before officials in each of the city’s 15 council districts can begin enforcing “quality of life” laws that generally aim to crack down on such public activity as sleeping on the sidewalk, sleeping in tents, storing possessions in public and living in vehicles.
The city has more than a dozen such laws, but they are inconsistently enforced, repeatedly debated by the City Council and challenged by homeless advocates in court.
Buscaino noted that the council would want a long-range agreement to be “similar to what’s taking place Whittier,” referring to that city’s decision to join a suit known as the Catholic Worker case, which originally named Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange as defendants after authorities cleared tent camps, where hundreds of people lived, away from the Santa Ana River Trail.
Negotiations in that lawsuit, also under Carter’s guidance, led to temporary shelter for more than 700 homeless people as the encampment was dismantled, along with settlements that aimed to add additional shelter space and create a more humane approach from local jurisdictions by sending outreach workers to offer assessment, health care and other services.
City Councilman Fernando Dutra of Whittier last week confirmed that his city has signed off on joining the lawsuit. Earlier, Bellflower officials became the first city from outside Orange County to join that lawsuit, which has already spurred creation of a new shelter and other services for homeless people in several cities. Carter has said he hopes other cities in Southern California — and perhaps statewide — will do the same.
As part of that decision, Bellflower agreed to offer beds to at least 60 percent of the homeless population before it would enforce “quality of life” laws restricting how homeless people can live, sleep and store their possessions in public.
Going forward, Buscaino and City Council President Nury Martinez will be “directly involved” in settlement talks for the city of Los Angeles, according to court filings.
“What I told my colleagues last night, and what we agreed upon we have to stop this endless cycle of litigation,” Buscaino said, adding that differences between city’s districts will be considered.
“We have come to realize we are cities within (a city),” he said. “What’s happening in San Pedro and Wilmington is a hell of a lot different from what’s happening in Echo Park, Pacoima or Brentwood.”
The Los Angeles City Council discussed the case in closed session Wednesday night, but did not report out any details of what was discussed.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said on Thursday that they were unable to “discuss the content of last night’s closed session, but the city is continuing to work with Judge Carter to explore ways to resolve the case and address our homeless crisis.”
Matthew Donald Umhofer, the attorney for the plaintiffs, described the development as “big news and wonderful news.”
He added that it appears, “instead of fighting this case, the city is going to work with us to get to a resolution.”
Umhofer said the idea is to work toward an agreement with a “district-by-district approach,” and that would include specific timelines that would be “enforced and watched over closed by a judge.”
Talks have yet to begin in earnest, with Carter focused more on getting a shelter running near Skid Row. That effort has brought together representatives from the mayor’s office to the table with attorneys who have sued the city on a variety of issues.
The judge initially focused on a site near Skid Row where the city planned to put in small shacks known as pallet shelters, but that homeless advocates said should be used for recreational vehicles. But concerns were raised about pollutants from a nearby freeway and chemical contamination left behind by a previous occupant, so an alternate site is being considered.
Carter hopes a successful resolution for this project could set the tone for future negotiations on more sweeping issues.
Umhofer on Thursday echoed that, saying “the judge’s approach here has been to identify certain issues and get to resolution on these smaller issues, and along the way develop relationships, introduce people to how he works, and get people dealing with each other, not in a litigation setting but in a cooperative way.”