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L.A.’s anti-camping law could shift even more power to the City Council on homelessness

An outreach worker speaks with a homeless person
Outreach worker Ciara DeVozza, right, talks with a 20-year-old homeless woman on skid row.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A controversial new anti-camping law has been billed as a tool that would allow Los Angeles to clean up some long-standing homeless encampments, while also ensuring that the people who live in them find shelter.

Even if that proves to be true, the law could also produce a less-discussed outcome: granting even more power to the City Council to decide which parts of the city receive focused attention on homelessness and which do not.

The ordinance, set for a second and final vote on Wednesday, prohibits sitting, sleeping or storing property on public property near libraries, parks, day-care centers, schools, freeway overpasses, recently opened homeless shelters and other locations. Yet it also states that enforcement in any of those locations cannot take place until the City Council has reviewed the location and given the go-ahead.

That strategy could force council members to cast separate enforcement votes block by block or encampment by encampment, said Elizabeth Mitchell, an attorney with the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, which is suing the city over its handling of homelessness. Each of the council’s 15 districts, she said, would become “mini fiefdoms.”

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“It’s likely going to be up to each council member to decide how they’re going to enforce this,” she said.

The council cast its first vote on the ordinance last month, saying enforcement would be accompanied by the presence of “street engagement teams” — social workers, outreach workers and others who would offer shelter and services. Homeless advocates have nevertheless voiced alarm, saying there is not enough shelter space available and that the ordinance would criminalize those living on the streets.

“There are many tools that they already have in their toolbox to accomplish this goal” of keeping sidewalks passable, said Pete White, executive director of the skid row-based Los Angeles Community Action Network. “It’s more of a political statement than anything else. This is the council saying, ‘We can be strong.’ It creates a litmus test for the next mayoral candidate and campaign.”

LAPD Officer Michael Silva says he has been left with a feeling of “being in between” this year — commiserating with protesters and his fellow officers, and being judged by both.

Mitchell predicted that the council’s more progressive flank — Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman, among others — will be hesitant to utilize the law, while its more conservative members — Joe Buscaino and John Lee — will use it comprehensively, resulting in “very inconsistent enforcement.”

Buscaino has already signaled he will take an expansive approach, securing council approval to make areas with “sensitive uses” — such as parks and schools — off limits.

“The councilman is going to put up signs at every school, at every library, at every day-care center,” said Buscaino spokesman Branimir Kvartuc. “We’re going to print up a million signs.”

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who coauthored the anti-camping ordinance, said the law should be used in a much more limited way.

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The ordinance, he said, was intended to give council members discretion to identify a particular location in their district, assess the type of homeless outreach performed there and then “take action as deemed appropriate.”

“By no means was this intended to allow a wholesale prohibition of the homeless from residing near all sensitive areas,” he said in a statement. “And I will not be supportive of a process that facilitates this.”

Ridley-Thomas has described the ordinance as humane, saying any violation would be treated as an infraction and result in, at worst, fines. Those arguments have not quelled protests from homeless advocates and dozens of community groups.

On Monday, a team of UCLA health researchers posted a map online showing locations that could be covered by the ordinance.

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Chelsea Shover, assistant professor-in-residence in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said she and her students found that, if every location identified in the ordinance were off limits, there would be few areas left where people could sleep or camp, particularly in downtown and parts of South Los Angeles.

Even that picture is incomplete, Shover said, because her team was unable to find sources for some of the locations, such as freeway underpasses and building entrances.

Shover said the city should produce a complete map before the ordinance goes to a vote.

“I don’t know how you can think about voting on it without a map,” she said.

Raman, who voted against the ordinance last month, said she too is trying to determine how it would be carried out — and has not decided whether she would use it to outlaw camping any portion of her district. Raman warned that the ordinance will prevent the city from adopting a coordinated, citywide approach.

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“This takes us back to what we’ve been doing in Los Angeles for a very long time, which is 15 council members responding to homelessness in 15 different ways, in a really ad hoc manner,“ she said.

Not every location listed in the ordinance would require a council vote. Under the ordinance, city crews would still be permitted to enforce provisions barring people from sitting, sleeping or storing property within two feet of a fire hydrant, five feet of a doorway or 10 feet of a driveway.

The city would also have the power to ensure sidewalks have enough space for wheelchairs, as required under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Councilman Paul Krekorian, another coauthor of the ordinance, said he has no intention of using it to “sweep every person off of the streets.” In some parts of his San Fernando Valley district, he said, people living in encampments are “not causing problems for anyone.”

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“But I also have places that are the sources of countless complaints, countless responses by the fire department, that are consistently and completely blocking public access, particularly for the disabled and the elderly and young children and parents,” he said. “Those are the areas I’m going to focus my attention on.”

The council’s proposal is part of an ongoing shift in how the city prioritizes services for homeless residents. For years, offers of housing and shelter have been distributed according to need, with those resources being directed first to the most vulnerable.

While homeless service providers still see that as their mission, the city has been moving toward a more location-based approach, focusing on places considered to be trouble spots, such as Echo Park and the Venice boardwalk. In those places, the city has offered services and shelter and then prohibited people from pitching tents in those locations.

California will spend a record $4.8 billion over two years to alleviate homelessness after legislators passed key details of a new state budget. Here’s how the money will be spent.

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That approach does not necessarily guarantee that a homeless person will make their way into shelter.

Linda Guzman, who has been homeless in Venice for more than a year, said outreach workers have spoken with her regularly but never came through with an offer of housing. For weeks, she said, officers had been showing up at all hours — including the middle of the night — to tell her she couldn’t stay on the boardwalk.

Last week, Guzman moved her tent to nearby Pacific Avenue, alongside some friends.

“I feel like it’s like whack-a-mole,” the 43-year-old said. “The cops and others move you to one place. They tell you to go there but then they don’t want you there.”

Councilman Bob Blumenfield said he hopes a location-based approach will show the public the impact of the work taking place on the ground — and spur them to support other efforts to help homeless people. The proposed ordinance won’t cause homelessness to disappear, he said, but will provide council members a greater level of control.

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“It will be a step in a direction where we can have a little bit more agency over what’s happening in the district,” he said.


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