Coalition seeks injunction in federal homeless suit

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From Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — A hearing is scheduled for May 10 to discuss a motion for a preliminary injunction that would require housing to be offered to thousands of indigent people in downtown’s Skid Row area by August.

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit seeking to force the city and county of Los Angeles to effectively deal with the homelessness crisis filed the motion April 12.

It is a first step toward placing the city and county into a court-supervised receivership in the matter, according to the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of downtown businesses and residents that are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

If approved, the motion would require that within 90 days of the hearing the city and county would provide shelter or housing immediately to all persons experiencing homelessness living in and around the skid row area, a 50-block warren of streets in downtown Los Angeles containing one of the largest populations of indigent people in the nation.

In addition:

The city and county would be required to offer all individuals suffering from mental illness within the skid row area appropriate emergency, interim or permanent housing and treatment.

• The city and county would adopt a plan within 30 days of approval to ensure that the housing provided not just be concentrated in the so-called containment area, and at least 50% of the housing offered must be within an area to be defined by the court.

The city and county must adopt mandatory, expedited time frames for the review and processing of all applications and approvals for new housing built specifically for the skid row population.

• Land for housing shall be made available in all council and supervisorial districts, including unincorporated areas.

• The county will provide, or fund third parties to provide, support services to homeless residents who accept the offer of housing, and the city and county shall evenly split the cost of providing operational services.

Within five days, the city and county would identify land owned by each entity respectively, totaling a minimum of 20 acres per entity, that may be utilized to support shelter or housing designated to satisfy obligations.

• The court will consider land parcels in any seizure of property necessary to accomplish the goal if city and county are unable or unwilling to comply.

• And after adequate alternative shelter is offered, city would clear sidewalks, public streets, and public places in the designated areas, and camping within the area shall be prohibited.

The 36-page motion, filed in Los Angeles federal court April 12, opens with a jarring description of the events of April 7, when a 60-year-old disabled man — who was confined to a wheelchair and took fentanyl to manage his chronic pain — “burned to death, unable to escape the fire that engulfed his tent on Towne Avenue in Skid Row. His charred corpse remained on the sidewalk for hours, a testament to decades of intentional actions and deliberate indifference by the city and county.”

The introduction goes on to say that “today, five more human beings on the streets of Los Angeles will die. Tomorrow, five more. From the time this motion is filed until the hearing takes place, 140 more unsheltered persons will perish. This is no accident, no act of God. This is a consequence of choices — choices made by the city and county, which have admitted repeatedly that they have caused this crisis and are unable to fix it.”

According to the L.A. Alliance, the Skid Row “catastrophe created by the city and county traces its roots to 1976, when the city formally adopted a policy of ‘physical containment’ whereby poor, disabled, mentally ill and other marginalized people who were suffering or at risk of suffering homelessness would be ‘contained’ inside the delineated borders of Skid Row.”

The motion will be heard in Santa Ana federal court where U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is based.

Over the past year, with federal courthouses closed or not fully operational due to the coronavirus pandemic, Carter has held emergency hearings in such places as Los Angeles City Hall and a Skid Row women’s shelter.

Undoubtedly, both the city and county will feel that such an order is diminishing their powers,” the L.A. Alliance said in a statement when it recently signaled its intent to seek a preliminary injunction.

Yet, in the absence of a consensual agreement by the parties, court intervention becomes necessary.”

The L.A. Alliance is seeking action similar to the type of court intervention used in Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court issued a mandate to enforce school desegregation in 1954.

Once it is clear that the local governments are unable/unwilling to address the problem adequately, the courts must take a more active role,” according to the coalition.

The plaintiffs wrote that despite several settlement conferences and discussions, no agreement has been reached in the year-old lawsuit, and the county “appears intent on denying its role in causing this crisis in the first place.”

The crisis on the streets is more desperate than ever,” according to the coalition. “Immediate and sweeping action is needed, yet defendants drown in politicking and bureaucracy.”

Nine days after the lawsuit was filed in March 2020, the parties suspended litigation with the intent to explore settlement “and set the stage for a comprehensive solution in the city and county of L.A.,” the plaintiffs stated.

Any proposed solutions have become bogged down in bureaucratic snarls between the city and county, prompting Carter to begin 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.

While about 8,000 beds are reportedly already in place for the needy, 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 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.

A proposed settlement is expected to be discussed by the Los Angeles City Council behind closed doors sometime this week.