Advocates hail ruling that restricts criminalizing homeless sleeping; Garcetti sees 'not much' effect on L.A.

Mayor Eric Garcetti takes questions Wednesday at the site of a temporary homeless shelter about to open in downtown Los Angeles. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday that a federal court ruling that curbs when cities can arrest homeless people for sleeping on the street will have little effect on Los Angeles, which has not been enforcing such rules at night.

L.A. officials agreed more than a decade ago to stop enforcing a nighttime ban on sleeping on streets and sidewalks until the city had built a minimum amount of homeless housing. The deal, known as the Jones settlement, ended a legal battle with skid row residents and their advocates.

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This year, Garcetti and his aides said the city had met the legal requirements to resume enforcement of the ban. The mayor said there were no immediate plans to do so, but his statement nonetheless troubled advocates for the homeless who argued that the city would lose in court if it started enforcing the contested code.

This week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

It found that such criminal charges are unconstitutional if no housing or shelter is available.

That ruling overturned a district court decision in favor of the city of Boise, Idaho, where homeless people had challenged city ordinances barring them from staying overnight on public property.

After their lawsuit was filed, Boise altered its rules and stopped issuing citations whenever shelters lacked available beds for the night. But the 9th Circuit noted that people could be denied access to the shelters because they arrived too late or had stayed too many days, and some shelters had religious programming.

The federal court decision affects not only Boise but cities across California and other Western states. What will it mean for Los Angeles?

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“Not much,” Garcetti told reporters Wednesday.

As Garcetti and other officials unveiled a new shelter downtown, his staff stressed there were “no current plans” to crack down on nighttime sleeping around such sites, despite his June declaration that the city had met the legal requirements to do so.

Instead, mayoral staffers said Los Angeles would enforce another law that limits how much personal property can be stored on public sidewalks, parkways and alleys.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said city lawyers are still reviewing the Boise ruling and will advise the council soon on its ramifications. Homeless advocates said that even though L.A. has not been enforcing a nighttime ban on sidewalk sleeping, the ruling nonetheless had important implications both in the city and beyond.

The federal court said it agreed with the reasoning behind an earlier ruling in the Jones case, which had been vacated when the L.A. settlement was reached. Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys who argued the Jones case, said the Boise ruling meant that the city could not simply go back to arresting people after building the target number of units of homeless housing.

“It sends a message: Don’t think that if you set up emergency shelters for 1,000 people that you somehow get to arrest the other 24,000,” said attorney Carol Sobel, another one of the attorneys who represented skid row residents in the Jones case. Sobel added that reaffirming the arguments behind Jones cements a key precedent for other cities.

The Boise ruling did, however, leave the door open for cities to restrict where or when people could bed down in public. “Even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible,” the court found.

As homelessness has grown and spread, some L.A. residents argue that the city needs to step up enforcement of municipal rules to prevent filth and chaos on sidewalks.

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Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., argued that the federal court decision did not stop L.A. from enforcing the nighttime ban on sidewalk sleeping if there was a “credible offer” of a shelter bed. His group has urged the city to establish standards for making such offers and use the disputed law in targeted areas near homes or where crime has been a problem.

“If you don’t use some law to move them, these encampments are right next to homes and they are very disruptive,” Ryavec said.

Attorney Ernest Franceschi Jr. argued that “if they have a place to go and they choose not to go, the city is well within its rights to enforce the ordinance.” Franceschi represents a group that is suing L.A. over the proliferation of homeless encampments, arguing that its failure to enforce city rules has created a dangerous nuisance.

Rosenbaum countered that L.A. was far from satisfying “a common sense test” before making arrests for nighttime sleeping.

“Does the individual have a realistic opportunity to find housing, to find a place to sleep at night? The answer in Los Angeles is no, no, no,” Rosenbaum said.

City Councilman Mike Bonin, whose coastal district includes parts of Venice where homeless encampments have spread, said the decision leaves other cities with the “stark choice” that L.A. has already been facing.

“It’s either provide the housing and shelter, or allow people to sleep on public property,” Bonin said.

Sobel said sleeping restrictions have been a “major issue” in many cities in Orange County. Sim Harper, who splits his time between Anaheim and Orange after becoming homeless a few years ago, said that wherever homeless people sit or lie down, “they force us to move, else they give us these things called citations that basically tell us, ‘You are not wanted anywhere.’ ”

Harper, 42, said it’s worse for his friends who are pet owners. “Hardly any shelter takes animals, so we have no options but to sleep with them on the streets.”

Anaheim city spokeswoman Lauren Gold declined to answer questions but said in a written statement that the city’s approach to homelessness already follows the guidance from the Jones case, now reaffirmed in the Boise ruling.

“Enforcement, when and where needed, focuses on specific violations of our laws and not the condition of homelessness,” Gold said.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty said Wednesday that the federal ruling could affect rules in dozens of municipalities, including Redondo Beach, Sacramento and Long Beach.

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But in Redondo Beach, city prosecutor Joy Abaquin said, the ruling would not change anything, despite a local law barring unlawful camping in parks, right of ways, beaches or other public areas.

The reason: The Redondo Beach city attorney already hasn’t been prosecuting such cases because there are no shelters in the South Bay city, Abaquin said.

And Long Beach Deputy City Atty. Sarah Green said her city has enough shelter beds to accommodate its homeless residents, allowing it to enforce laws targeting unlawful camping. Green said the city only uses those rules if a homeless person turns down offers for services.

“We haven’t had an issue where there hasn’t been a bed available for someone who wanted one,” she said.

Santa Clarita, in turn, passed new rules this summer that bar individuals from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks. But the city will not enforce those rules until a new shelter opens next year, so the ruling “won’t have any material impact,” said Santa Clarita City Councilman Cameron Smyth.

In Orange County, attorney and homeless advocate Brooke Weitzman said, the ruling should send a message to cities. “You cannot criminalize the homeless for eating, sleeping or sitting outside simply because they have no other shelter,” said Weitzman, who heads the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center in Santa Ana.

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