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Judge delays decision on L.A. County’s proposal to settle a homeless lawsuit

In April 2020, U.S. District Court judge David O. Carter tours skid row with LAPD officer Deon Joseph in Los Angeles.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge on Monday held back a decision on L.A. County’s proposed settlement of a 2020 lawsuit accusing the county and city of Los Angeles of failing to address homelessness, suggesting that he thinks the terms could be better.

Judge David O. Carter told lawyers for the county and the plaintiff in the lawsuit, the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, that their proposed agreement fell short of providing an adequate number of mental health and substance abuse beds. Carter did not specify any changes he expected, instead scheduling a hearing in January.

He said he intended to call the newly elected mayor and member of the county Board of Supervisors into a hearing to discuss the settlement.

“He said, ‘I want to look them in the eyeballs. I want the new board chair and I want the new mayor to come in here and talk to me,’” said plaintiff’s attorney Elizabeth Mitchell.

In the proposed settlement, the county pledged to develop at least 300 additional substance use and mental health beds by June 30, 2024. Based on estimates of 4,000 to 5,000 people with severe mental illness living on the county’s streets, that figure would be inadequate, he indicated, according to Mitchell.

“What he said essentially, which is what I have been saying, is, ‘This is a good effort.’ He wants to recognize the city and county coming together. They’ve put forward a lot and made a lot of concessions.”

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Homelessness among Latinos has shot up in Los Angeles County while other demographic groups have seen a decline over the last two years.

Mitchell said her clients accepted the settlement, even while agreeing with Carter’s assessment of its shortcomings, because of its overall value.

“We were not prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Mitchell said. “This was still a very good agreement.”

Among the terms that pleased them, she said, was a substantial increase in the county’s mental health and health outreach teams and, most importantly, that the county would make “reasonable best efforts to ensure [those teams] have access to County Homeless Initiative-funded high service need interim housing beds.”

The county also agreed to fund supportive services for interim and permanent housing financed by the city through the 2026-27 fiscal year

“We are disappointed that the court chose to delay dismissal of this case and look forward to moving forward as soon as possible with the settlement,” said Skip Miller, partner at the Miller Barondess law firm and outside counsel for L.A. County in the case. “The county is eager to take this major step forward.”

He said the agreement commits the county to spending an additional $236 million over the next five years for services and housing — over and above nearly $2 billion it has spent since 2017 to help people experiencing homelessness.

Since the lawsuit was filed in March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the case has sprawled in several directions — owing partly to Carter’s wandering interest and frustration with various facets of the region’s homelessness response.

The plaintiff — which is a group of mostly downtown residents, business groups and some formerly homeless people — alleged that the city and county had failed in their duty to protect public health and safety and to provide shelter to people living on the streets.

The city reached a separate settlement in April. It pledged to create housing, either permanent or interim, for 60% of the city’s unsheltered homeless population in each council district. But the city said it could take responsibility only for people “who can reasonably be assisted by the city, meaning they do not have a serious mental illness, and are not chronically homeless [or] have a substance use disorder or chronic physical illness or disability requiring the need for professional medical care and support.” The county is responsible for providing that support, it said.

The county criticized the settlement, saying the city was in effect seeking to dump responsibility for thousands of severely ill homeless people onto the county, promising no new housing that isn’t already committed and shirking responsibility for the people who most urgently need help.


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