City Council seeks to restrict homeless camps

Wave Staff and Wire Reports

LOS ANGELES — The City Council is expected to vote July 1 on an ordinance that would restrict sleeping on public sidewalks and homeless encampments in certain areas of the city.

Citing the need for urgent action on the homelessness crisis before the council leaves for a three-week summer recess, members voted June 29 to instruct the city attorney to draft the new ordinance as a substitute to a stricter anti-camping draft ordinance that has been stalled in the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee since November.

That ordinance was introduced by Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor partly on an agenda to enforce the city’s anti-camping laws. Buscaino invoked a rarely used rule June 23 to have the council pull the draft ordinance from committee.

“It was never a request of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee that this item be heard and we are now having to contend with it in the context of a Rule 54,” said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who chairs the committee.

Councilman Paul Krekorian, who said Buscaino’s proposal would allow a “draconian response” to homelessness, introduced the substitute motion with Council President Nury Martinez and Councilmen Ridley-Thomas, Mitch O’Farrell, Bob Blumenfield and Kevin de León.

The motion instructed the city attorney to prepare an ordinance that allows the city to “maintain passable sidewalks and access points by preventing sitting, sleeping, lying, storing personal property or otherwise obstructing the public right-of-way within two feet of any fire hydrant or fire plug, or within five feet of any operational or utilizable entrance or exit, or within 10 feet of a loading dock or driveway, or in a manner that interferes with any activity for which the city has issued a permit, or in a manner that restricts accessible passage as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or anywhere within a street, including bike paths.”

The motion also instructs the city administrative officer to develop and implement a street engagement strategy within 30 days to offer people suitable and available overnight shelter, interim housing or permanent housing.

“While we can all agree that the status quo is untenable, I think we can also agree that there are right ways and wrong ways to disrupt the status quo and improve conditions on the street,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I am governed by a fundamental position: Before the unhoused are restricted from occupying public space, they should be thoughtfully engaged and offered a suitable alternative for housing options.

“If we truly want to make a significant impact in addressing the moral crisis of our time that is homelessness, the solution does not lie in criminalizing our unhoused neighbors for occupying public spaces,” he added. “It lies in scaling up sustainable solutions to transition Angelenos safely indoors, while also ensuring that our streets remain clean and accessible — and this first begins with a ‘right to housing.’”

Councilman Mike Bonin voted against the motion, saying that council members should be presented with a map to better understand in practice where people would and would not be allowed to camp.

Councilwoman Nithya Raman, who also voted against the motion, similarly said, “This is law that impacts every resident of this city and right now I feel like I’m making a decision on this law without the information I need to understand the impacts of this law.”

Buscaino also voted against the motion, but he said he agrees with the content. His said he voted no because he is skeptical that the city attorney would be able to prepare an ordinance in two days and he instead preferred to vote on the ordinance available now.

I’ve been skeptical of the city attorney drafting ordinances,” Buscaino said. “If the thing comes before us [July 1] I’ll be the first to vote yes, but I’m skeptical.”

The ordinance that will be presented to council members will also restrict obstructing the public right-of-way within 500 feet of a “sensitive” facility, including schools, day care facilities, parks and libraries.

While enforcement for that could begin immediately, people would be restricted from blocking the public-right-of way in the following areas once the city posts signage and gives notice up to 500 feet from a designated overpass, underpass, freeway ramp, tunnel, bridge, pedestrian bridge, subway, wash or spreading ground, railroad track or where lodging unsheltered or in tents is unhealthy, unsafe and incompatible with safe passage and up to 1,000 feet from a facility opened after Jan. 1, 2018 that provides shelter, safe sleeping, safe parking or navigation centers for persons experiencing homelessness.

City Council President Martinez said it was time for the council to take action.

“In January, I set out to put together a strategy to have detailed discussions with this council about the homelessness crisis to hear the concerns of our housed and unhoused constituents,” Martinez said in a statement after the vote. “Over the last several months we’ve approved motions for establishing standards for street outreach and housing as well as street engagement and hygiene.

“Now the council is ready to make a decision and proceed with how we maintain our public right of way so that it is accessible and available to all residents. Now is the time to act. No more excuses.”

Councilman John Lee said he believed if the city doesn’t stop people from sleeping near homeless housing developments, constituents will want to stop building them.

I need to be able to enforce around the housing that we have put in [his council district] because the rest of my district is looking at those locations and unless I’m able to enforce around those locations, the rest of my community is going to say ‘why would we want to put something in our community when it makes absolutely no difference?’” he said.

The ordinance also would allow the city to prevent encampments for a period of no longer than one year in areas that are deemed an ongoing threat to public health or safety, including due to death or serious bodily injury of any person at the location due to a hazardous condition; repeated serious or violent crimes or threats of serious or violent crimes, including human trafficking; and fires at the location.

The status quo is unacceptable but the solution to homelessness is not to make homelessness illegal,” Krekorian said. “The solution to homelessness is to provide homes.

But it’s also saying that there’s certain conduct on sidewalks, on our rights-of-way, on our streets that cannot be tolerated under any circumstances,” he added. “Blocking access to the public infrastructure is not acceptable, creating hazardous conditions on our streets that puts the lives of the unhoused in danger, as well as surrounding communities, is not acceptable.

“Limitless encampments around parks and libraries and schools is not acceptable.”

The motion also instructed all relevant city departments to minimize engagement between law enforcement and people experiencing homelessness by ensuring that service providers lead the street engagement strategy and that people are offered interim or permanent housing services, treatment programs or other available interventions; deploying available alternative-to-policing models, including interventionists and experts in conflict resolution; and limiting law enforcement engagement to only where there is criminal behavior or activity and circumstances with a serious threat to public health or safety.

The city’s current anti-camping ordinance, which has not been enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, prohibits tents during daytime hours, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. On June 9, Buscaino requested that the council amend the mayor’s declaration of local emergency and resume enforcement of the current anti-camping ordinance.