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Essential California: A wild week in L.A. homelessness policy

 A homeless woman sweeps up 8th Street near an encampment along the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles.
A homeless woman sweeps up 8th Street near an encampment along the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, July 2. I’m Ben Oreskes writing, with Julia Wick’s assistance, from an ant-infested press room in Los Angeles’ City Hall.

When I’m not helping out with this newsletter, I cover the homelessness crisis. This week was momentous in some ways, and here’s why.

Let’s start late last week, when Councilman Joe Buscaino — who is running for mayor, with cleaner streets at the center of his platform — utilized an unusual procedural maneuver, asking his colleagues to pull a series of anti-camping ordinances out of the homelessness committee, where they were still up for consideration. That’s a transgressive move at City Hall, where committee chairs wield significant power.

On Tuesday, council members sidestepped these anti-camping measures, which were drawn up in October but failed to secure council support. Instead, they voted on a different package that wasn’t included on Tuesday’s council agenda, asking to draft new rules barring homeless people from camping near schools, parks, libraries and other “sensitive” facilities. It was a sudden change in direction for a city struggling to address a humanitarian crisis while also restoring access to its public spaces.

With unusual lightning speed, the city attorney drafted a new ordinance and the council voted by a 13-2 margin Thursday to approve laws regulating these aforementioned public spaces. It wasn’t a course of events we expected at the beginning of the week. But an unusual brew of jockeying to see who will be the next Los Angeles mayor and intense anger from citizens who are emerging from lockdown to more tents on the sidewalk helped prompt elected officials to act.

One of the ordinance’s supporters, Councilman Bob Blumenfield, said he has already faced protests at his home after working to open two “tiny home” cabin communities for unhoused residents in his west San Fernando Valley district.

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If those facilities become a magnet for encampments, “I’m never going to be able to get another cabin community sited in my district,” he said.

Councilman Mike Bonin, who is running for reelection and was recently served with a recall notice, said he had faced political pressure for opposing the new ordinance. But he argued that he could not support it at a time when the city still lacks enough shelter beds to serve 61% of its homeless population.

In an impassioned address, Bonin described his own history as a recovering addict who at one point did not have a home, living instead in his car, on friends’ couches and, on a few nights, on the beach.

“I cannot describe how demoralizing, and dehumanizing and defeating that experience is when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep. I can’t adequately express the combination of shame and frustration and anger and desperation and confusion you feel in that moment.”

Contributing to the intrigue was another person making calls to elected officials about homelessness that wasn’t known publicly. My colleague Dave Zahniser and I picked up that Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is worth nearly a billion dollars, has discussed the issue with several members of the Los Angeles City Council, as well as aides to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

It’s partly been a listening tour for Katzenberg, who has deep pockets and has donated to countless politicians at the local, state and national level. He wants to know more about the crisis — and figure out how he might be able to help.

Several of these meetings took place during the run-up to these votes on new anti-camping ordinances.

During at least one meeting, Katzenberg suggested that the city not tackle every location at once, but rather focus on regulating the sidewalks that surround schools and parks — areas where children are present, said Councilman Paul Koretz, who met with the film producer Friday at his City Hall office.

Koretz agreed with that idea, saying limits around schools and parks make more sense than targeting areas around freeways. “I think it is intuitively more important to allow children a safe place to play in parks and a safe path to get to school,” he said.

Another elected official, Council President Nury Martinez, said Katzenberg asked for an introductory meeting to discuss her priorities in office, according to Sophie Gilchrist, a Martinez spokeswoman. During their June 18 meeting, Martinez and Katzenberg talked about homelessness broadly but did not discuss the anti-camping measures that were proposed by the council this week, she said.

“They did not discuss specific policies that he wanted to have approved, nor did he push for that ordinance,” Gilchrist said. “The concerns that this specific [proposal] would address have been raised by the council president for quite some time. “

Where this all leads, only time will tell. Council members go on a month vacation starting Friday, and when they return will vote on these ordinances again before they go into effect.

Until then, we’ll be following closely.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

Mark your calendars for the recall election! Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis has set Sept. 14 as the date for the recall election targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom, leaving it up to voters to decide whether to oust a sitting governor for just the second time in the state’s history. The tight election timetable gives prospective candidates just over two weeks to decide whether to jump into an expected frenzied race to replace Newsom, though a cadre of notable Republicans launched unofficial campaigns months ago with promises of loosening the Democrats’ ironclad grip on California’s state government. Los Angeles Times

Growing alarm over the Delta variant in L.A. County: This highly contagious variant of the coronavirus is continuing to circulate in California, further highlighting the importance of getting vaccinated as the state and nation gear up to celebrate the Fourth of July. Los Angeles Times

A beautifully told, incredibly sad tale: José Tomás Mejía was a legend to his brothers and sisters in the Salvadoran town of Moncagua. He came to America, created a wonderful life for himself and bought a home. But no one expected Mejía’s story to end on the fifth floor of a tower at Park La Brea, where he had worked for more than three years. Or that his life would be cut short by an assailant no older than he was when he fled his homeland. Los Angeles Times

José Tomás Mejía’s picture is shown on a poster
José Tomás Mejía’s picture is shown on a poster at a June 17 vigil for him near downtown L.A. organized by his union.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Little Tokyo’s 111-year-old mochi ice cream shop Mikawaya closes permanently: The business, which began as a Japanese confections store in 1910, was one of Little Tokyo’s oldest. Eater LA

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

A right to housing? The mayor of Sacramento has announced a plan to legally obligate the city to house its homeless population. If passed by the City Council, the measure would be the first of its kind nationally. New York Times

Some 200 California projects may be funded by infrastructure bill. The House on Thursday approved an approximately $715-billion transportation infrastructure plan that would build and repair roads, bridges and rail systems around the country. You can see what would be built here. Los Angeles Times

State launches an audit of sexual harassment policies at a powerful water agency. Authorities approved an audit of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California over its handling of sexual harassment complaints, after allegations that agency leaders tolerated bullying and abuse of women in the workforce. It comes after a Times investigation this year. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco budget deal reached: The Board of Supervisors and Mayor London Breed reached an agreement on the city’s $13.2-billion budget after more than 30 hours of negotiations. San Francisco Chronicle

CRIME AND COURTS

LAPD faces questions over fireworks explosion that hurt 17 people. The Los Angeles Police Department is promising a full investigation amid growing questions about the agency’s handling of a fireworks seizure in South Los Angeles that ended with a huge explosion. Los Angeles Times

Plus: Learn more about what the heck happened. Los Angeles Times.

Why was Bill Cosby set free? A legal principle brings anger, alarm to the #MeToo movement. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County’s court system will end its remote audio program after an illicit recording of Britney Spears’ hearing surfaced. The Hollywood Reporter

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

California pleads for more power as summer blackout threat grows: The nonprofit corporation that manages most of the state’s power grid issued a rare call for additional power supplies Thursday, ahead of summer heat. Sacramento Bee

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Half of the U.S. Olympic surfing team and the national governing body for Olympic surfing in the United States call San Clemente home. The organization and city leaders want to brand the Orange County city as the “the surfing city of the United States.” But they’ll have to think of another tagline: Surf City USA is already taken by Huntington Beach. Orange County Register

“Time and space don’t exist in the spirit world.” From Cameo to Zoom, psychics are embracing remote work. Los Angeles Times

Coronado High School’s basketball championship is revoked over tortilla-throwing incident: “In this instance, there is no doubt the act of throwing tortillas at a predominantly Latino team is unacceptable and warrants sanctions,” the California Interscholastic Federation said in an announcement. San Diego Union-Tribune

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Sunny, 82. San Diego: Partly cloudy, 72. San Francisco: Mostly cloudy, 64. San Jose: Partly cloudy, 79. Fresno: Sunny, 102. Sacramento: Sunny, 93.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Judith Trumbo:

On Monday morning, Nov. 6, 1961, I remember seeing the hills ablaze at the top of our canyon. Stone Canyon was a magical place to grow up, rambling in the hills and playing along the day-lit creek along Stoneybrook Drive. But that morning it was a picture of hell to my young eyes. Fortunately for us, the Santa Anas blew the fire south, away from our home. The Bel-Air Fire had ignited and would go on to burn nearly 500 homes.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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