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A federal judge had ordered the city and county to offer housing to all Skid Row homeless residents by October and place $1 billion in an escrow account within seven days to combat the crisis.
| Thursday, Apr 22, 2021
LA Homeless
A homeless man takes food from a trash can in Los Angeles’ Skid Row area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, via Courthouse News. File)

 

By Martin Macias Jr

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A day after a federal judge ordered the city and county of Los Angeles to take widespread action to quickly eradicate homelessness and audit the response to the crisis — including by ponying up $1 billion in an impound account within a week — attorneys for the city and county announced they will appeal the order as likely unlawful.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter’s preliminary injunction issued Tuesday sent shockwaves through the region’s political infrastructure. In addition to the $1 billion escrow account, Carter ordered city and county officials to audit funds allocated for fighting homelessness and undertake sweeping actions to house homeless people living in a 50-square block, open-air encampment by October.

Carter also ordered officials to house unaccompanied women and children living in the Skid Row community within 90 days and families within 120 days.

“The city and county shall prepare a plan that ensures the uplifting and enhancement of Skid Row without involuntarily displacing current residents to other parts of the city or county,” Carter wrote.

He gave the city and county until April 27 to explain why officials have not declared an emergency or triggered emergency legislative powers to house people. Homeless people living in the Skid Row community account for about 28% of the more than 60,000 who are homeless in L.A. County.

In 2020, L.A. County reported a nearly 13% increase in the local homeless population, while the city of LA saw a 14% increase. In total, more than 66,000 unsheltered people were counted.

Attorneys for L.A. County filed a notice of appeal with the court Wednesday evening and asked Carter to stay the injunction pending appeal.

Skip Miller, outside counsel for the county, said in a statement to Courthouse News the county is appealing the ruling because it feels the court should respect the county’s legislative authorities and ongoing work to solve the crisis.

“Deciding how to spend taxpayers’ money and deliver services to people experiencing homelessness is a legislative, not judicial, function,” the Miller Barondess attorney said in the statement. “The county remains committed to its course of urgent action outside of court addressing this complex societal issue with the city and its other partners.”

In a virtual press conference Thursday morning announcing the opening of a tiny home village for houseless people, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti shared additional reactions to Carter’s ruling. He said the court should let the city do what it can legally to handle the homelessness crisis.

“I think we all have moments where the emotions of this come out, where we say ‘I want to wave a magic wand and can you please just make homelessness disappear,’” Garcetti told reporters.

Carter’s injunction came a day after Garcetti announced an ambitious city spending plan that boosts investments in small businesses, gang reduction and youth programs — and allocates $1 billion to combat homelessness. The Central District of California judge seized on that, ordering the city to place the $1 billion in escrow and to report funding streams to the court by April 27.

Garcetti said Thursday he’s skeptical of the legality of complying with Carter’s escrow order.

“It may be impossible and illegal to take that money and put it in escrow,” Garcetti said. “And I just said ‘Stay out of the way’ in terms of the work we’re doing. We’re not gonna slow down.”

Garcetti told reporters the $1 billion “doesn’t exist yet” because it hasn’t been approved by the full LA City Council. He also said Carter has no authority to override ongoing distribution of funds from Proposition HHH, a voter-approved tax the mayor said has funded construction of over 5,600 housing units.

“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to slow that down or put it in a different account,” Garcetti said. “Nor is it probably legal. This isn’t about who’s right or wrong or beating our chest. This is about helping real people.”

Garcetti’s proposed city budget also calls for a financial boost to Project Roomkey, a program that aims to provide 15,000 publicly funded motel and hotel rooms to homeless people in LA.

In his ruling, Carter criticized the city and county’s slow build of the Roomkey program. As of this month, only 2,079 rooms that received funding from Roomkey were operational while just over 1,690 were actually occupied by homeless people.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feurer’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the county’s notice of appeal, but on Tuesday said it was reviewing the ruling.

Carter’s ruling stems from a lawsuit by an organization of LA business owners, developers and downtown residents who seek a court-mandated plan to reduce encampments, provide care for homeless people and the swift construction of shelter and housing.

The organization, called L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, said in a statement that Carter’s ruling is the FEMA-level response the region has been calling for. The group also called the county’s appeal wrongheaded.

“Rather than trying to convince the public that things are working, the county should begin to provide comprehensive outreach and mental health services at scale to the community while partnering with the city to provide both immediate and long-term housing options for the unhoused and those who are in danger of becoming unhoused,” the group said. “The answers are in front of us, but the county has chosen to litigate rather than collaborate.”

Not all LA County advocates for the homeless are pleased with Carter’s ruling, however.

In a statement Tuesday, leaders with the L.A. Community Action Network said they believe political leaders will use the federal litigation to funnel more public funds into emergency shelters rather than to build housing for poor, low income or houseless people.

“We all know shelters won’t solve our housing crisis, and they definitely won’t address the structural racism that got us here in the first place,” the group said. “City leaders should take Judge Carter’s sweeping words as a call to action to actually dismantle those racist systems and focus on solutions that give our communities a path to real housing, instead of doubling down and investing in emergency shelters and criminalization.”

Donald Whitehead Jr. of the National Coalition for the Homeless said in an interview his organization will continue reviewing Carter’s ruling but believes it’s a step in the right direction.

Whitehead said Carter, like other judges across the nation, have a critical role to play in protecting the constitutional rights of homeless people when elected leaders have fallen short of their promise to provide housing and shield them from criminalization.

“We see in many communities, the leadership and elected officials not taking the necessary steps for whatever reason to fully address homelessness,” Whitehead said. “There’s been some movement in LA but not enough has been done. That’s why we have three levels of government; when one level is not making the progress we need to make, we need to depend on other levels of government.”

As evidence for the role of judicial leadership, Whitehead pointed to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, which held cities cannot prosecute homeless people for sleeping in public when there aren’t enough shelter beds available for them. Carter has ruled he will only allow LA County to enforce laws in alignment with Boise when “adequate” shelter has been provided to homeless people.

“When officials ban people from sleeping outside, the court has stepped in to stop them,” Whitehead said. “I disagree that courts don’t have a role.”

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