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L.A. prepares to begin crackdown on homeless camps, under fire from civil rights lawyers

Outreach workers went tent to tent early Wednesday with offers of homeless services as the city launched a crackdown on encampments around a new shelter in downtown Los Angeles’ El Pueblo historic district.

The city plans five-day-a-week cleanups and increased police presence in “special enforcement zones” around a network of 15 shelters it hopes to build by the middle of next year.

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Wednesday was to have been the first day of the stepped-up enforcement around the first shelter, El Puente, which opened a month ago across from Union Station.

But sanitation employees and police who later joined outreach workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said they would delay ticketing and aggressive camp clearances until homeless people are educated on the new rules.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose public safety and homelessness deputies observed the operation Wednesday, said the crackdowns will improve public health and prevent the shelters from becoming magnets for more of the sprawling camps that have blanketed the city since he took office in 2013.

A coalition of homeless service providers denounced the enforcement, and late last month, civil rights attorneys cautioned that the ramped-up sweeps raised “serious constitutional issues.”

“Individuals who are homeless need increased public health infrastructure and sanitation services, not encampment sweeps and criminalization,” civil rights attorneys with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and other firms said in a Sept. 24 letter to the mayor and City Council members.

“My office has met with the Legal Aid Foundation, and we remain committed to conducting these cleanups in a way that respects the rights of all Angelenos,” the mayor said in a statement.

Under the enhanced enforcement, the city will seize and toss out oversize belongings and require homeless people to put away their tents from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., under a 2016 law that had been enforced sporadically.

Having lost several lawsuits over homeless property confiscations, the city has adopted an elaborate protocol to comply with court rulings that involves sweep notifications, storage, extensive outreach and offers of homeless services. The city on Wednesday brought in a second storage trailer for homeless people in the El Pueblo area to keep possessions.

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority workers who arrived first in the predawn gloom delivered wake-up calls through tent vents and handed out cards with the rules: tents down at 6 a.m., sidewalks clear, 10-foot distance from doors and driveways, and 60-gallon limits on personal property.

“C’mon out,” Amy Perkins, an authority supervisor, told Maria Barrett, who emerged crying and asking for bus money home.

Lisa Pacheco, another authority worker, said the bus fare would have to be approved by administration, and added, “Tell the person you’re staying with they’re going to have to take [the tent] down early.”

“Is the water cold?” a recent transplant from Indiana who arrived in May responded from inside his tent as Perkins offered water bottles. “Get us an apartment.”

The 30-year-old man, who declined to give his name, came out railing against onlookers taking video and pictures.

“Homelessness is not a show,” he said. “This is not paparazzi. We’re people that’s homeless and don’t have nothing; it’s not something to gloat over.”

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Several homeless people said they appreciated the cleanup crews, who raked trash from the gutters, as police stood back.

Others, however, said they saw the homeless authority teams as tools of the police and accused the city of trying to drive them out.

“They don’t want us here, “ said Charles Johnson, 45, adding that he’d already been pushed out of MacArthur Park. “They arrested me for having a shopping basket inside the park.”

“I hate they see us as part of the police,” Perkins said. On the other hand, Perkins said, she knows police officers who are as committed as her agency is to helping homeless people get services and housing.

Garcetti has said the city will continue letting homeless people sleep on city sidewalks while it develops the shelters. Leticia Cervantes, 51, said that she would like to move into El Puente but that a man who had battered her already did.

“We want to get off the street, but we want stable housing,” she said.

Perkins conceded that homeless housing remained in short supply. “The system is inundated,” she said. But she pronounced the day’s outreach successful.

“It went really well today, sharing the message in a kinder, gentler voice,” she said.

Garcetti said that three people whom the homeless authority contacted Wednesday accepted shelter and that seven signed up on the El Puente waiting list.

“LAPD and the Bureau of Sanitation are coordinating closely with outreach workers to make sure cleanup activities do not interfere with efforts to connect homeless Angelenos with housing and services,” the mayor said.

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