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Housing & Homelessness

Federal judge orders emergency hearing over coronavirus threat to L.A.'s homeless people

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L.A. County Sheriff Deputy Michael Tadrous talks with Shawn Troncozo, 24, about how to prevent becoming infected with the novel coronavirus during an outreach effort in El Monte last week.
(Gina Ferazzi/Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The federal judge who forced the opening of new homeless shelters in a landmark Orange County case has called for an emergency hearing in Los Angeles this week, citing the risk of people living on the streets during the coronavirus outbreak.

The hearing, set for Thursday, is on a case filed last week alleging that the city and county of L.A. have failed in their duty to protect public health and safety and to provide shelter to people living on the streets.

Citing the havoc that COVID-19, the disease caused by the rapidly spreading virus, could cause in homeless encampments, District Judge David O. Carter called for the emergency status conference.

Carter requested that a host of city and county officials attend, including Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore, Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interim executive director Heidi Marston.

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The Los Angeles case was filed on behalf of a group named the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights which, according to its website, was formed last summer by downtown residents and property owners to press for solutions to what they say are unsafe and inhumane conditions in spreading homeless encampments.

Led by longtime Central City East Association general counsel Don Steier, the group recruited members from around L.A. including nonprofits and service providers according to its website, and raised funds for legal fees and research into the issue. The group says it supports a legally enforceable right to shelter and provision of services for every person on the streets.

Concluding that ideological battles and legal challenges have been responsible for preventing progress, the L.A. Alliance sued on March 10.

That was just as cases of the novel coronavirus were beginning to spread in California. As of Tuesday, there were nearly 150 cases confirmed in L.A. County and many more in the Bay Area.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom this week urged state and local officials to make homeless people a priority in their efforts to try to curb the spread of the virus, which experts agree could prove devastating to the already vulnerable community. And on Tuesday, three members of the L.A. City Council called on the city to “urgently reevaluate” its policies for dealing with homeless encampments, including putting a temporary stop to removing tents during the day and to confiscating the possessions of homeless Angelenos unless those items are deemed to be hazardous.

The 92-page lawsuit from the L.A. Alliance cites state and federal law in 14 allegations, among them accusing the city and county of breaching their duty to abate a nuisance, reducing property value without compensation, wasting public funds and violating the state environmental act and state and federal acts protecting people with disabilities.

The eight plaintiffs include downtown property owners, business owners and residents, and one Westside business owner. The suit alleges loss of business, deterioration of property values and inability to use sidewalks or safely leave their homes. The plaintiffs are seeking injunctive relief and unspecified compensatory damages.

“What we are proposing is long-term solution that can be rolled out in a matter of months,” said Attorney Elizabeth A. Mitchell of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer, the law firm retained by the L.A. Alliance. Mitchell, a former Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney, added that the claims for damages are negotiable.

The lawsuit did not suggest what powers might be needed to clean up encampments if adequate beds were available.

“I’m not talking about forcing anybody to go into a shelter,” Mitchell said, but she believes that most would seek shelter, allowing more focused attention to those who resist or need more intensive health or mental care. “We’re hoping to peel back the first layer,” she said.

A spokesman for Feuer said the city would have no comment. A spokesman for Los Angeles County also declined to comment.

The decision to have Carter preside over the case has given the proceeding a character not usually seen in the staid federal courts in Los Angeles. Carter, who sits in Orange County, was brought in as a substitute on the case, which was originally assigned to Los Angeles-based Judge Stephen V. Wilson, after the plaintiffs filed a motion identifying the Orange County case as related.

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Carter has a reputation as a caring jurist who has immersed himself in the complexities of the laws governing homeless people and has has made personal visits to homeless camps and demanded that local authorities do more.

Under his prodding, the opposing parties in the Orange County case struck an agreement that allowed officials to clean out a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River with the county being required to give out temporary motel vouchers, expand shelters and retrofit properties in Orange and Santa Ana to provide temporary housing.

Several south Orange County cities balked during the proceedings. At one point, Carter warned them, “If you don’t step up, then you put the court in writing a position, and I can solve that very easily for you. You don’t want me to do that.”

A judge reviewing the cities’ complaint found that a reasonable observer would find that “the District Judge is not unbiased.”


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