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Housing & Homelessness

In wild hearing, federal judge grills L.A. officials over coronavirus and homeless shelters

Homeless encampment north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Los Angeles
A small homeless encampment north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was an unusual scene Thursday in the ordinarily staid chambers of federal court: Local officials lined up to have a judge grill them about finding as many beds as possible to quickly get homeless people off the streets of Los Angeles County amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The emergency hearing was called by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter for a lawsuit filed last week by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a group of business owners, downtown residents and others who are demanding solutions to what they call unsafe and inhumane conditions in encampments.

Skid row advocacy groups also are involved in the case, worried that any decision could undermine a previous settlement related to the personal property rights of homeless people.

No decisions about the lawsuit were made Thursday, but the extraordinary two-part, nearly five-hour session featured an array of Los Angeles leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Atty. Mike Feuer, Police Chief Michel Moore, county Supervisor Kathryn Barger and City Council President Nury Martinez.

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Carter, an unorthodox figure who, in another closely watched case, forced the opening of new shelters in Orange County, said he didn’t want to keep the gaggle of government officials from their work. The elected officials were allowed to exit once they spoke. Nevertheless, he peppered them with questions, pressing for solutions that would provide some immediate relief for people living on the streets as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to swell.

Government officials expressed fear that if the outbreak reaches the homeless population, it would ravage a group of people who are already vulnerable to health problems from the strain of living on the streets.

“I think there’s considerable fear and anxiety, especially for those of us who have a deep caring for those who are not only the most vulnerable but the most susceptible,” Garcetti said. “Most vulnerable because they’re much more likely to have underlying health conditions.”

The freewheeling discussion was rare for the normally prim and sedate halls of federal court.

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Moore described how the Los Angeles Police Department’s officers didn’t want to be in a situation in which they would have to force people into shelters, and he added that outreach workers and mental health professionals needed to be running the facilities.

L.A. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas told the court about the strain the coronavirus outbreak was having on firefighters who are already overworked as a result of the homelessness crisis.

Carter, then noting that he has the luxury of social distancing, said “guess who is responding to it.”

“We are,” Terrazas said.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey described how she was working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to mitigate the potential spread of the coronavirus in the county jails. She said they have identified 2,000 nonviolent or nonserious offenders and are discussing whether to release them.

Throughout the hearing, Carter pulled people from the audience, asking their opinions on a range of subjects.

Midway through the hearing, for example, representatives from the Salvation Army said they had a long list of locations across the county that could be used for shelters or triage centers. Carter then called to the front of the courtroom the interim executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and sent them all to the back of the room to hash out a deal.

“There’s a wonderful corner. Stand six feet apart,” Carter told them, referencing the recommendations from public health officials for social distancing.

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After lunch, the 76-year-old judge shed his robe and suit jacket and wandered through the room — at times veering closer than six feet to other people. He asked rapid-fire questions of the attorneys as they discussed how they would proceed in the coming weeks.

In its lawsuit, the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights argues that Los Angeles city and county officials have violated state and federal laws requiring government to protect the neediest members of society, to keep sidewalks clear of obstructions for residents with disabilities and to ensure safety on public rights of way.

“Enforcement of homeless-related crimes has been reduced, or in some cases eliminated, in the name of compassion,” the plaintiffs said in their filing. “But allowing people to die on the streets isn’t compassionate; it’s cruel.”

Two advocacy groups that have moved to intervene in the suit, the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Los Angeles Catholic Worker, said they were concerned that the L.A. Alliance was trying to undermine a settlement that protected the personal property rights of homeless people on skid row. They also argued that it was “unimaginable” that the case could proceed without groups that represent homeless people

The Orange County Catholic Worker raised similar concerns.

Throughout the hearing — and even before it — the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the discussion. The L.A. skid row groups submitted a legal filing calling on the city and county to suspend enforcement of quality-of-life offenses that lead to citations for homeless residents, stop confiscating possessions that exceed city restrictions, and suspend comprehensive cleanups of encampments unless they involve power washing that requires people to be displaced, among other measures.

Attorneys have agreed to suspend litigation to permit the court and parties to work on underlying issues of the lawsuit. The parties are scheduled to gather in court again Tuesday to sort through a range of plans to help homeless people amid the coronavirus threat.

“If the federal courtrooms go in lockdown across the county,” Carter cautioned, “then I can’t guarantee we can come here.” The parties agreed, preemptively, to meet at another downtown building.

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They’ll mostly focus on two issues: getting the homeless people who are at the highest risk of infection off the streets and into hotels and motels, and addressing concerns about plans that Garcetti announced Wednesday to provide 6,000 new beds at city recreation centers.

Despite philosophical and practical disagreements about the homelessness crisis, the L.A. Alliance and the advocacy groups agreed Thursday that motels and hotels would be a good first step to get people off the streets.

But civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, representing the Orange County Catholic Worker, said she was worried about the city packing more people into recreation centers than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends gathering in one place. Sobel said she was concerned that cramming people into buses and transporting them to recreation centers could spread the virus, suggesting that rooms in hotels and motels would be better.

“I just don’t understand how you identify the most vulnerable people, put them in a congregant setting and transfer them to take showers in closer contact on a bus,” Sobel said after the hearing. “It seems to me to be antithetical to everything we’re being told.”

Matthew Umhofer, one of the attorneys representing the L.A. Alliance, said he got a call from a hotel owner who was willing to offer 1,000 beds and had been in talks with government officials, but needed $10 more per room in order to make it feasible. Like Sobel, Umhofer said the priority should be moving people into motels and hotels.

Attorneys for the city and county said they had to go back to their respective political bodies to understand whether they could make a plan happen.

Carter at one point Thursday stood in front of a dry-erase board jotting down notes as Ken Rice, who runs a company that builds modular homes, described how he could house hundreds of people within 90 days. He then barked at officials from the city and county that they should decide within 24 hours whether to take Rice up on the offer.

“I don’t care if you accept them or reject them, just make a decision,” he said.


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