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L.A. Mayor Garcetti rules out, for now, declaring homelessness an emergency

L.A. Mayor Garcetti rules out, for now, declaring homelessness an emergency
Tony Dennis, 58, is among about 26,000 homeless people in L.A. He lives in a tent on the 42nd Street bridge over the 110 Freeway. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday ruled out declaring an immediate state of emergency to address Los Angeles' homelessness crisis, cutting off for now an avenue designed to bring swift relief to thousands of people as El Niño storms are expected to bear down on Southern California beginning in January.

An emergency declaration had been viewed as a novel — though far from assured — strategy for seeking more federal and state emergency funds and for gaining flexibility to deal with the city's growing homelessness. Such declarations are generally reserved for natural disasters, but backers argued that with the threat of historic rainstorms, the idea merited consideration.

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The City Council on Tuesday moved to lift some restrictions on sheltering homeless people — while officials continue to debate longer-term solutions.

The council's actions could add beds to the city's winter shelter program and open public buildings as new shelters, as well as authorize homeless people who live in cars and RVs to sleep in church parking lots.

But the council did not say where the money would come from, or how it would be spent, and it could be months before the city's 26,000 homeless people feel the policies' benefits.

Garcetti's decision left some frustrated that officials have not been able to do more. Officials have been debating for months a new housing initiative as well as new rules aimed at removing possessions of homeless people from sidewalks and alleys.

"My feeling from the beginning of this is that we need every possible tool in the toolbox," said Westside Councilman Mike Bonin. "It needs to be all hands on deck and I would love to see a healthy flow of federal or state resources."

Retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi said an emergency declaration would have empowered the mayor to take immediate action without going through the "laborious" process of council authorization at every step.

"For example, the mayor could ensure that people sleeping on sidewalks are provided with wooden pallets or other means of getting their bedding and clothing off the cold, wet ground, or providing tarps that can supplement the leaky tents and makeshift shelters in keeping them dry," said Blasi, now special counsel with Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law initiative.

Two months ago, Garcetti stood on the steps of City Hall next to council members as they announced their intention "to declare the homeless crisis an emergency."

The power to declare an emergency lies with the mayor, not the City Council. Although Garcetti considers homelessness "an emergency situation" requiring substantial resources, he never committed to the formal declaration, Garcetti spokeswoman Connie Llanos said Tuesday.

Garcetti might issue an emergency declaration at some point in the future, Llanos said. In the meantime, his office is waiting on more information from the city attorney.

"It's not about a technical definition of a state of emergency, which he never promised," Llanos said in a written statement. "He stood in support of council's action, which he still supports and will sign when he receives — as we continue to look at all options available."

"If you do a slow-motion policy, homeless people are going to go through a slow-motion death on the streets," said Philip Mangano, homelessness czar under President George W. Bush.

Council President Herb Wesson said it was important for the mayor's office and council to speak with one voice.

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"As we were going through this process as in any process, things can bend and turn and twist and you learn more," Wesson said. "I think we're moving where we want to move."

The council's votes Tuesday were unanimous, but confusion remained over revisions to the law aimed at clearing homeless encampments and removing homeless people's belongings.

A spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer said that homeless people could be ticketed, fined or arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for violating the new rules.

Some council members said they understood that they had voted to roll back the penalties, while others said homeless people could be ticketed or arrested for interfering with a city cleanup or other enforcement.

"I agree that these encampments have become a dangerous issue, but creating a new set of misdemeanors and penalties sets us off course," said Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, co-chair of the homelessness committee.

Wesson said the group could have done a better job of communicating what it was doing.

"We're going to have to really have that fleshed out by the time there's an actual vote," Wesson said. "I don't think that anybody wants to be able to go out and say 'Hey, you're poor. You're under arrest.' I don't think any members think that."

Twitter: @geholland

Twitter: @thecitymaven

Twitter: @peterjamison

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