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Treading a fine line, L.A. council considers ordinance to boost homeless sweeps

For nearly a year, Los Angeles has wrestled with how to curtail a sharp spike in street encampments while respecting homeless people's rights to hang on to personal property.

Faced with the most unsheltered people in the country, and ratty shantytowns from the Cahuenga Pass to the harbor, the city in June rewrote a municipal ordinance — 56.11 — authorizing aggressive encampment sweeps. It later approved an ambitious, $2-billion plan to end homelessness in the next 10 years.

But as concerns surfaced about potential lawsuits and federal condemnation of criminalization, officials suspended enforcement while they debated softening some provisions. On Wednesday, the City Council plans to take up the proposed changes.

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The council's homelessness and poverty committee in August called for dropping misdemeanor penalties and fines for people who refuse to take down their tents or relinquish their possessions. The panel also tied property confiscation to expanding municipal storage bins for homeless people, which currently exist only on skid row.

Yielding to opposition from City Councilman Joe Buscaino and others, the new law retains criminal penalties from the original measure, but follows the recommendation to link storage to enforcement. Homeless people can keep only what can they fit in a 60-gallon container, unless the city provides storage within a two-mile radius. In that case, homeless people must confine their belongings to what they can carry in a backpack. Seized belongings can be reclaimed from city storage for 90 days.

At a homelessness and poverty committee hearing March 17, downtown business representatives applauded the revisions as a necessary counterpunch to a crisis of disorder in public streets. A spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, who called for revisions to the original law, said he is likely to sign the ordinance if the council approves it.

"The mayor believes that this ordinance reflects the changes he asked for," spokeswoman Connie Llanos said in an email. "It balances the needs of those living on the streets with public health concerns."

Westside Councilman Mike Bonin, however, told the committee he was voting for the new law "reluctantly" because it puts enforcement before storage.

"It's only common sense, providing sufficient storage, and as a body we have failed at that," Bonin said. "We keep saying we're going for a balanced approach and we're not."

Bonin and Eastside City Councilmen Gil Cedillo raised alarms about possible new lawsuits from homeless advocates.

The city has suffered a string of courtroom defeats over its enforcement policies, including other forays into confiscating homeless people's possessions.

Earlier this month, homeless advocates filed suit, accusing the city of launching a new campaign to illegally seize and destroy property and remove homeless people from skid row sidewalks.

Bonin warned the city could end up paying more fees to civil rights attorneys, including Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers who filed the new suit. She and other attorneys have earned at least $1.7 million in recent years for representing homeless people against the city.

"We may as well open up the keys to reserve funds to Carol Sobel," Bonin said.

Cedillo also raised the prospect of federal funding cuts if the measure is seen as criminalizing homeless people.

In a report last August, homelessness officials in Washington said that "forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy." Federal authorities also signaled possible funding sanctions for jurisdictions that push criminalization policies.

"We're certainly under scrutiny," Cedillo told the committee.

"It's very important we don't have criminal sanctions that appear to be engaged with the mere fact of being homeless," said Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

The authority is awaiting word this spring on its application for $28 million in federal funds to build permanent supportive housing. Lynn did not answer when asked during the committee hearing whether he believed the new ordinance could jeopardize the city's chances for the competitive award.

Senior Asst. City Atty. Valerie Flores said her office had inserted amendments to make the law more "compassionate" by excluding bikes, wheelchairs, walkers and carts from the list of items to impound.

"This is uncharted territory," Flores said. "We're also under an obligation to keep areas clean and healthy."

An unanswered question is where the people will go when their tents are gone. The city this year spent $30 million expanding emergency shelter capacity, outreach and other services to homeless people, but fell short of a pledge by some officials and the mayor to allocate $100 million.

The city is also short of housing or shelter for 12,000 homeless people, City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana said in a report last October, and it is struggling to find the money to roll out its homelessness abolition plan.

"Outreach without [housing] placement is no use," Orlando Ward, executive director of external affairs at Volunteers of America-Greater Los Angeles, said in an interview last week.

Meanwhile, violent crime in the downtown L.A. Police Department district that includes skid row rose more than 57% last year from January through August compared with the same period a year earlier, and property offenses climbed nearly 25%, according to police data. A transgender woman named Kourtney Yochum was gunned down last week during the day outside her apartment on the corner of San Pedro and 5th streets, in skid row's teeming center. Police called the killing a possible act of domestic violence.

"Leaving these tents up puts the homeless in danger and turns the area completely over to the criminal element," LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, an 18-year veteran of skid row patrols, said in a Facebook posting this month. "It robs the homeless of any incentive to seek housing or shelter."

Downtown landlords are beginning to report higher turnover because of the squalor in the streets, Patricia Berman told the homelessness committee. The new ordinance strikes the right balance between competing interests, she said.

"We 'd like to find a way to make the city wonderful for everyone," said Berman, chairwoman of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's board of directors.

gale.holland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 30, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "L.A. to review rules to clear camps - Council considers ordinance to boost homeless sweeps amid concerns to balance law, people's dignity." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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