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Many of L.A.’s sidewalks would be off-limits for homeless people to sleep if plan passes

Pedestrians walk in the street to bypass tents set up by homeless people on a Koreatown sidewalk.
Pedestrians walk in the street, bypassing tents set up by homeless people outside the Villa Adobe apartments in Koreatown.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Night after night, Sheila Nassau hunts for a good spot to sleep in Hollywood — somewhere safe where no one will bother her.

It’s not easy, she said. Under existing rules in Los Angeles, homeless people who bed down on the streets for the night are supposed to stay away from doorways and driveways. Now a plan under consideration at City Hall could make it harder to find a spot by imposing rules that would bar people from resting on streets and sidewalks in at least 26% of the city, a Times analysis has found.

Those restrictions would come on top of existing rules that put other areas of L.A. off limits at night. For example, homeless people are already supposed to clear out of many parks, which cover an additional 15% of the city.

“These people need to be in our shoes for once,” Nassau said as she sat on a Selma Avenue sidewalk one recent morning. “See what it’s like.”

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The plan, unveiled at a committee meeting last month by Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, would rewrite L.A.'s existing rules about sidewalk sleeping, which have long been at the center of bitter court battles over public property as homeless encampments overtake city sidewalks.

The Times analysis does not include all of the proposed restrictions in the plan, some of which could not be mapped with readily available data.

A plan under consideration at City Hall would ban sleeping on streets and sidewalks within 500 feet of schools, parks, day-care facilities and some popular venues, eliminating at least a quarter of Los Angeles for homeless people trying to bed down at night, a Times analysis found.

But it shows that key elements — including bans near schools, parks, child care centers and other facilities — would have a broad impact on where homeless people can bed down without the risk of getting ticketed or told to move along by police. More than half of some neighborhoods, including Westlake, Koreatown and Watts, would be banned for sidewalk sleeping.

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The plan has already stirred up vehement opposition. Councilman Mike Bonin said the proposed rules would give “a middle finger to the court, false promises to neighbors and a kick in the head to people who are homeless.” And he argued that “it is certain the court will throw this out, likely with further and tighter restrictions on the city.”

Last year, a federal court tossed out rules enacted in Boise, Idaho, that restricted sleeping on public property. The decision in that case, Martin vs. City of Boise, applies to California and several other states in the West.

The court concluded that as long as there is no option to sleep in a shelter or housing, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property.”

However, the court also said that “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.”

Backers of L.A.'s new proposal argue that the restrictions on where homeless people can sleep would be legally defensible under the Boise ruling and strike a sorely needed balance with the needs of other residents.

“These changes ensure that homeless are not penalized for sleeping in public, but also allow officers to ensure sidewalks are safe and passable for everyone,” said Councilman Joe Buscaino, who called the plan “the best path for the city” under the constraints of the Boise decision.

Some council members, including Bonin, have already come out against the plan, saying they cannot support the proposal as currently written. Activists have assailed the plan as cruel and unworkable, complaining that it perpetuates stereotypes that homeless people are dangerous and need to be regulated like sex offenders.

“These banishment zones push people into areas that are farther away from services, farther away from the types of things that people need to survive,” said Shayla Myers, senior attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

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Under the proposal, L.A. would bar people from sleeping, lying or sitting on streets and sidewalks in a list of prohibited areas. They could not sleep within 500 feet of a school, park, day care or any recently opened facility that serves homeless people — a provision that appears to be aimed at easing neighborhood opposition to new shelters and housing.

Doing so, argued City Atty. Mike Feuer, would “protect kids on their way to school and support the siting of homeless housing.” Feuer said he backed the plan “as part of a broader strategy to balance urgent, humane work to provide homeless housing and services, and efforts to assure public spaces are safe and accessible for everyone.”

Sleeping on bicycle paths would also be off limits, along with tunnels or bridges designated as school routes. And people could not sleep in public areas with signs barring trespassing or closing times for safety or maintenance purposes. Nor could they sleep on sidewalks in crowded areas near big venues, such as Staples Center or the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Times analysis is a rough estimate of key parts of that plan. It relies on a city list of recently opened homeless shelters, housing developments and other facilities that serve homeless people. That list does not include privately funded facilities that also might be subject to the restrictions, which have yet to be fully spelled out by city attorneys in a draft ordinance.

Some of the proposed limits, such as areas that bar trespassing, could not be easily mapped. And some of the areas in The Times’ analysis are already off-limits because they are private property, a spokesman for Feuer’s office pointed out.

Homeless advocates also argue that the banned areas could end up being much more extensive than The Times estimates. Existing rules already require sidewalk sleepers to stay 10 feet from entrances, exits and driveways and provide enough room for people to pass, which activists complain has become harder as some Angelenos install illegal fences and planters.

Myers and other activists also worry that the city could continue to winnow down sleeping space by putting up more “no trespassing” signs. They point out that when L.A. passed a similar law on where people could sleep in cars or RVs, politicians then clamped down on overnight parking, outlawing the practice on street after street where vehicle dwelling had been permitted.

Even “a tiny little pocket park” could put big areas out of bounds, said attorney Carol Sobel, who has sued the city repeatedly over the rights of homeless people. She argued that because parks were where many homeless people access bathrooms, the plan “would run counter to what the city is trying to do” to prevent filth on city streets.

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Sean Dinse, a senior lead officer with the LAPD who recently ran for a council seat in the San Fernando Valley, countered that it made sense to prevent people from sleeping in “sensitive areas,” including tunnels where children are walking to school. He suggested that some restrictions could be limited by time to specifically target days and hours when children were in school.

“Is it fair for a child to have to walk into traffic to avoid an encampment?” asked Dinse, who also raised concerns about children encountering people with mental illness or addiction issues.

Travis Binen, who is part of a Venice group opposed to city plans to open a homeless shelter on a former bus yard, argued that the city should go much further.

A 500-foot buffer is “a good start,” he said, but nighttime sleeping should be restricted in more areas and people should not be allowed to sleep anywhere on sidewalks during the day. As it stands, L.A. can ticket people for sleeping on sidewalks during the day, but such encampments remain a common sight well after sunrise.

“People just have their tents up all day, and they’re blocking the sidewalk,” Binen said. “It’s breeding lawlessness.”

O’Farrell’s plan would replace a blanket ban on sidewalk sleeping that L.A. has held back on enforcing at night. Under the Jones vs. City of Los Angeles settlement, L.A. agreed that until a minimum amount of homeless housing was built, it would let people sleep on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. if they stayed far enough from doorways and driveways.

That deal was struck to end a legal battle with skid row residents and their advocates, who argued that the law trampled on the rights of homeless people who had nowhere else to sleep. Homeless advocates later hailed the Boise ruling for cementing the key arguments behind the Jones case.

At a recent event, Mayor Eric Garcetti sounded dubious about O’Farrell’s plan, calling it “premature.”

“You cannot just move homelessness from one place to the other. ... It’s a zero sum game until you actually build more shelter beds and build more apartments,” Garcetti said when asked about the idea.


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