Judge overseeing homeless suit calls special meeting

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The federal judge overseeing attempts to resolve the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles has called an urgent meeting Feb. 4 at a Skid Row women’s center to discuss worsening conditions and the poor official response to the recent rainfall that created an “extraordinarily harsh” situation downtown.

Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring mental health and substance abuse issues among those living on the streets, homelessness in the region could be likened to “a significant natural disaster in Southern California with no end in sight,” U.S. District Judge David Carter wrote in an order filed Jan. 31 in federal court.

The judge indicated that he traveled to Skid Row Jan. 29 to witness firsthand the impact of the rains on the homeless, “particularly elderly women and victims of mental illness, at least one of whom was naked and suffering from hypothermia,” he wrote.

Carter stated that “while some ad hoc efforts were made to respond to the crisis presented by the storm,” it was through the efforts of Councilman Kevin de Leon, Union Rescue Mission, the Downtown Women’s Center and other nonprofits “that additional suffering and loss of life was averted. These conditions cannot be allowed to continue!”

While in past months the court has focused on relocating the homeless away from freeways, “nothing substantial has been done to remediate the appalling and dangerous conditions in Los Angeles’ Skid Row,” Carter wrote, noting that 1,383 homeless persons died in the city and county of Los Angeles last year, a 32% increase of the number of homeless deaths recorded in 2019.

The judge blasted an “apparent abdication of responsibility by local authorities” to keep the streets safe, adding that the court “cannot allow the paralysis of the political process” to continue to endanger the lives of indigent residents and the safety of the surrounding communities.  

City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statement that “as long as there are unhoused Angelenos living on our streets, all of us should be impatient about finding additional solutions. At Thursday’s court hearing, the judge has asked to hear about the steps the city has taken and intends to take. Every day L.A.’s homeless crisis persists is a day that diminishes all of us, and city leaders should explore every possible path forward.”

Carter is overseeing a federal civil lawsuit brought in March by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights seeking to compel city and county of Los Angeles officials to address the homelessness crisis. The plaintiff, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, service providers, small-business owners, residents and community leaders, has won an agreement between the city and county to provide 6,700 beds, 6,000 of which are due by April.

The agreement was the result of an injunction issued by the court ordering the humane relocation of people living over, under and near freeways.

However, without an anti-camping ordinance making it illegal for the homeless to return to their encampments, momentum slowed in September and October.

While there have been important victories during the past nine months — including 8,000 beds put in place for the needy — bureaucratic tangles blocked the path forward, said L.A. Alliance attorney Elizabeth Mitchell.

Carter’s order represents a “dynamic” turn of events which is “absolutely necessary to break through the inertia,” Mitchell said.

“This is a sea change,” the attorney said, adding that Los Angeles is facing a crisis of Federal Emergency Management Agency proportions, which “requires a FEMA-like response. The city must write its own destiny.”

Carter, meanwhile, is tracking the impact of homelessness on the city and county.

“Indeed, if the impact of homelessness on the city and county could be calculated, it appears to the court the conditions are substantially worse than those existing in June 2020,” Carter wrote in the order.

The Feb. 4 meeting at the Downtown Women’s Center will discuss whether the court should deploy “any and all equitable remedies” to strengthen efforts to tackle the “rapidly accelerating and increasingly deadly epidemic” of homelessness.

In its September report, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted 66,436 homeless people in the county, representing a 12.7% rise from the previous year. The city of Los Angeles saw a 16.1% rise to 41,290.

The organization also reported that de León’s Council District 14 — which includes downtown Los Angeles and Skid Row — had the highest number of unhoused residents in the city with 7,896 people on the streets — more than 20% of the entire homeless population of Los Angeles.

De León said last week’s storm and cold weather “punctuated the suffering around Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis because people were exposed to the natural elements — wet, shivering, and desperate. The incident [Jan. 29] was one that plays out every day in Skid Row and in other parts of our city, the struggle to find shelter for vulnerable unhoused Angelenos.”

De León said that it’s a priority “to aggressively work to ensure we merge our resources with efficiency to alleviate the human distress on our streets. Ultimately, though, this is how we dig ourselves out of this hole: every level of government working together, pooling resources, and building like hell so we can get people indoors.”