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Federal judge rejects LA County offer in homelessness suit

"I believe we can do better," U.S. District Judge David Carter said, throwing another curveball at LA County by shooting down its offer to spend an additional $236 million on homeless services.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — For years, a federal lawsuit over the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles has hung like a specter over city and county elected officials. At times, it threatened to completely upend the region's complex and extraordinarily expensive system for combatting homelessness. But for the last six months, the suit has appeared to be sputtering toward a rather anticlimactic end.

The sputtering will go on. On Monday, U.S. District Judge David Carter refused to approve a settlement agreement between the LA Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of downtown residents, business interests and service providers, and Los Angeles County.

"I'm not prepared to endorse this agreement today," Carter said. "I believe we can do better." Still, he asked the county to begin implementing the terms of the agreement "in good faith."

Filed in March 2020, the suit initially sought a "right to shelter" law, a legal mandate for the government to provide shelter to every unhoused person in the county. But the two settlement agreements yielded far more marginal concessions — promises to spend a bit more money on the same system that's been in place for decades. In September, the county agreed to spend an additional $236 million over the next five years on "increased services, outreach, and interim housing for the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness." It also agreed to pay for 300 additional beds for homeless people experiencing mental health or substance use disorders.

Carter suggested those 300 beds weren't nearly enough to address the number of mentally ill and drug addicted homeless people, which are believed to number in the tens of thousands.

The judge also said he wanted to make sure the new mayor of Los Angeles, who is set to take office in December, would be "comfortable" with the deal. That will be either Congresswoman Karen Bass or billionaire developer Rick Caruso. At the moment, Bass leads Caruso by about 9,000 votes, though most observers expect that lead to grow considerably and for Bass to be deemed the winner within a week or two. There will also be a handful of new City Council members, as well as one new county supervisor.

"I need to know that the new mayor is willing to go forward with this agreement for the next four years," said Carter.

It was only the latest of surprise moves from a judge who's made a habit of headline-making decisions. In 2021, he issued a bombshell of a ruling, ordering the city and county to house every homeless person living within the 50-block area of Skid Row in downtown LA within 180 days. He also ordered the $1 billion the city had earmarked for homeless spending to be frozen in an escrow account. The Ninth Circuit promptly struck down that ruling, saying Carter had "impermissibly resorted to independent research and extra-record evidence” in a decision that was "largely based on unpled claims and theories."

Carter owned his decisions. "I'm the first to admit this court has done unorthodox things that it has been criticized over," he said during Monday's hearing.

Following the hearing, attorneys for the LA Alliance praised Carter.

"He’s not wrong," said attorney Elizabeth Mitchell. "The county can do better." She added: "This was a really good agreement. But if the judge wants more, we’ll do more."

Skip Miller, the county's outside counsel, said in a written statement: "“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 between the LA Alliance and the County – a landmark agreement that exemplifies the cooperation between the City of LA and County of LA in addressing homelessness."

The city attorney declined to comment.

Judge Carter had already approved the settlement between the alliance and the city in June, calling it  "fair, reasonable, and adequate." According to the terms of that agreement, the city will build more than 14,000 housing units within the next five years, enough to house 60% of the city's unhoused population who were not suffering from drug addiction or a serious mental illness — a deceptively small concession by the city since it already had 13,000 units in various stages of planning or construction at the time the settlement was reached.

"I've always believed the city's settlement was inadequate to resolve the homeless problem," Carter said on Monday, "but it was an admirable first step," adding that he thought it would be "irresponsible" to turn down the city's offer to build thousands of units of housing.

A number of nonprofit groups had entered the lawsuit as intervenors, including Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) and LA Catholic Worker. They objected to the city's settlement, and have asked the Ninth Circuit to block the deal. They did not object to the county's settlement.

"The agreement by the county will provide additional resources and services," said Shayla Myers, an attorney for the intervenors. "Significantly, none of those services can go to enforcement of street sweeps."

According to the most recent homeless count, there are 69,144 unhoused people living in Los Angeles County, 41,980 of them within the city of LA. It is often said that roughly 40% of those experiencing homelessness also suffer from either mental illness, drug addiction or both.

Traditionally, it has been the city's job to build homeless housing, both permanent and temporary, including shelters. As for health care, outreach workers, social workers, mental health services, counseling and addiction treatment — that has been considered the purview of the county. But the lines aren't so bright, and the two jurisdictions have feuded constantly over money and responsibility. For much of the case, the county took a hard line, denying any liability whatsoever. When the city announced its settlement agreement in April, Miller said: "The county is more than doing its job and doing everything possible to address homelessness without stigmatizing it as a crime. Any assertion that the county has failed on this obligation is utterly baseless."

The county's agreement in the alliance case signaled a possible cooling of those relations.

"The city and the county have a newfound spirit of working together," Carter said Monday.

What his ruling will do to that new spirit remains to be seen.

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