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L.A. City Council set to consider new ban on homeless camping

The Los Angeles City Council is moving with unusual speed to a Wednesday vote on revisions to the city’s anti-camping law that would allow authorities to remove homeless camps anywhere in the city if they first offer shelter as an alternative to living on the street.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer delivered the proposed amendments to the council on Monday, less than a week after several council members introduced a motion requesting tweaks to the anti-camping law, which had been sidelined on constitutional grounds.

Backers had said they expected to consider the motion Tuesday but instead scheduled a special meeting Wednesday to vote directly on the amendments, bypassing the usual committee process.

The proposed change in the law would effectively prohibit anyone from camping in public anywhere in the city if authorities offer shelter as an alternative.

When he first saw the language that Feuer’s office had crafted, Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who had requested the change, thought it was far too broad. He said he spoke with Feuer on Tuesday and planned to amend the citywide ban so that it would only go into effect once there is a system to track shelter beds and an agreement over what constitutes acceptable shelter.

“Those are very big hills to climb,” he said.

“We have to be at a place where we actually can track all of our real-time beds and where we have a series of protocols that we’ve all approved and that the shelter beds are real,” Blumenfield said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get there ... but it’s a nice North Star to have.”

The addition of the words, “who has been offered shelter” in the amendments is intended to address a 2018 ruling of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Martin vs. City of Boise that found the arrest of homeless people unconstitutional if no alternate housing or shelter is available. The case withstood appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A letter opposing the changes, signed by more than 40 homeless services providers and advocacy groups, was emailed to all 15 council members Tuesday afternoon.

The haste with which the proposal has moved forward provoked outrage from homeless advocates who phoned into Tuesday’s regular council meeting, which was held remotely.

“What breaks my heart is seeing you pull out all the tactical and legislative stops to quickly pass something so cruel to our most vulnerable Angelenos when we’ve never seen this kind of urgency for a motion that might actually help us,” said Sophie Strauss, one of a string of speakers who castigated the council, several with expletive-laden diatribes.

Release of the proposed amendments led to a confrontation Monday night as members of KTown for All,
a grassroots group that advocates for the interests of the homeless, faced off with several police officers outside Feuer’s home.

Feuer, who briefly stood in his front yard to address the group, issued a statement saying he supports the right to protest and accepted the incident as something that “comes with the territory.”

He said the purpose of the amendments is to help the city open new shelters and to relocate and shelter more people.

Feuer’s office is recommending that the city set up a working group to develop protocols to ensure that enforcement of the revised ordinance will be sensitive to the needs and circumstances of people experiencing homelessness.

This proposal resembled a similar effort last year from members of the council and Feuer to bar people from sitting or sleeping on streets and sidewalks near schools, parks and day care centers, and in a range of other prohibited areas — and that drew the ire of homeless advocates at the time.

It never passed.

“It feels like a Groundhog Day,” said Councilman Mike Bonin, who opposes the effort. “It’s as if the city every six months tries to put cart before the horse when it comes to homelessness. The city’s historical approach is always to do the enforcement with promise of alternatives. We’re doing that again here.”

Councilman David Ryu, who is facing a stout challenge in next week’s election from a candidate who has relentlessly criticized his response to homelessness, said he would vote no on the proposal. In an emailed statement, he said that Feuer and his council colleagues who supported the effort were rushing a “piece of legislation without consulting with our public health and homeless housing experts.”

“These amendments will not solve homelessness, get people off the street, or make our neighborhoods cleaner and safer,” he said.

The restoration of a citywide camping ban overshadowed other sections of the proposed amendments that would ban camping in specific locations. If adopted, they would allow the city to remove homeless camps within 500 feet of freeway underpasses and homeless shelters. In those areas the offer of housing would not apply.

Those restrictions are specifically aimed at enabling the city to respond to pressure from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is presiding over a lawsuit alleging that the city and county have failed to alleviate homelessness. At Carter’s direction, city and county officials have committed to providing shelter for about 6,700 people estimated to be living under overpasses.

To make that happen, council members across the city are identifying sites in their districts where new homeless facilities — including safe parking, traditional shelters and tiny-home villages — can be built.

Several have expressed concern that they can only be successful in bringing these plans to fruition if they can demonstrate to nearby residents that the new housing won’t become a magnet for new homeless camps.

After two weeks of intense outreach, Tuesday was the deadline for people living under overpasses of the 101 Freeway in Blumenfield’s district to move as part of an effort spearheaded by Carter. A spokesman for the councilman said 60 people had been moved to either hotels or shelters.

This effort to update the ordinances appeared to be part of an effort to give the city a firmer legal standing to do similar outreach and relocation projects in other locations in the future.

Earlier, notices on official city letterhead citing the lawsuit and telling people they needed to move were posted. Yet it was unclear on whose authority the notices were issued because Carter’s order to clear the areas near freeways had been vacated in the spring.

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