Judge wants answers in homelessness lawsuit

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — A judge Feb. 8 attempted to cut through what he suggested was “deliberate indifference” and possible systemic racism that could be slowing attempts to resolve Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis downtown.

In an order issued four days after a federal court hearing took place in a tent on Skid Row, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter asked for responses from officials as he tried to “ascertain whether there has been deliberate indifference on the part of the city in not providing adequate shelter options for the homeless.”

The judge said he wanted to know whether the city’s policies with regard to Skid Row were “intended” to make the area “be a gathering place, voluntary or involuntary, for racial minorities.”

Is there any evidence in the records of the city or the county that either government intended Skid Row or any other section of the city to be a gathering place, voluntary or involuntary, for individuals who are homeless, knowing said individuals are disproportionately racial minorities?” the judge asked.

Carter asked city officials to “produce any material where race has been discussed or considered with regard to Skid Row policy,” adding that the court was also trying to determine whether the city’s policies “have been deliberately indifferent to those with mental illness.”

The judge asked for evidence to show whether any section of the city had been designated a “gathering place, voluntary or involuntary, for the mentally ill. Please produce any material that where the problem of mental illness has been discussed or considered with regard to Skid Row policy.”

Additionally, Carter asked officials to answer whether city policies have been deliberately indifferent to women who are homeless.” He wrote that he wants to know of “any evidence in records of the city that there has been consideration of the effects of homelessness on women” on Skid Row.

The judge also asked if there was any evidence “of the city’s intent when establishing Skid Row to make it a gathering place for men, voluntarily or involuntarily,” and he requested exact numbers of indigent people who have exited homelessness into permanent or transitional housing since mid-June.

Carter is apparently considering how he might deploy the power of the federal court to speed up efforts to get city sidewalks cleared and place homeless people into housing of some sort.

At a Feb. 4 hearing, Carter recounted a situation he witnessed during a fierce downpour in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 29, where homeless elderly women and barefoot mentally ill individuals had nowhere to go during the rainy, cold weather.

Homelessness in downtown Los Angeles is ultimately “an ever-increasing spiral of death,” Carter said last week.

The hearing was the first court session of the new year in a 10-month attempt to settle a federal lawsuit seeking to compel Los Angeles city and county officials to quickly address the homelessness crisis.

The plaintiff is the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights — a coalition of nonprofit organizations, service providers, small-business owners, residents and community leaders — that has thus far won an agreement between the city and county to provide 6,700 beds, 6,000 of which are due in two months.

About 8,000 beds are already in place for the needy, but bureaucratic tangles and neighborhood resistance to interim or supportive housing have continually blocked the path forward, according to the L.A. Alliance.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin has suggested that city officials are not “nimble or forceful enough” to adequately respond to the homelessness crisis, and called for a judicial consent decree under Carter’s supervision to compel immediate action. If the parties agree, such a decree would end the lawsuit with a settlement giving Carter power to order the city and county to build shelters and provide services.

The judge previously asked attorneys for all parties to submit briefings by Feb. 16 on how the federal court might possibly intervene in the case.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was invited to the Feb. 4 hearing, but said he had a previous engagement that prevented him from attending. However, he told reporters that he had met with the judge and shared a “sense of urgency” about the situation.

There is distinct progress, and like the judge, I share that same sense of urgency,” the mayor said Feb. 3, adding that he hopes the city will be able to come to a “global settlement” with the L.A. Alliance “because I think we share the same things — get more people off the streets even more quickly.”

Garcetti said there is no city in the country doing more than Los Angeles to combat homelessness, but like most residents he asks “why do we still have so many tents? We’ve got to keep doubling down on those solutions, and that sense of urgency.”

A January 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found there were more than 66,400 homeless people living in Los Angeles County — the largest single concentration in the state. That included more than 41,000 within the city limits. Both figures were up more than 12% from the previous year.

The annual count was not conducted last month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Carter noted that 1,383 homeless people died in the city and county of Los Angeles last year, a 32% increase from 2019.

The Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, accompanied Carter on his Skid Row tour on Jan. 29. He said then that Los Angeles is facing a crisis of Federal Emergency Management Agency proportions, and it requires a “FEMA-like response.”