LA County Loses Bid to Dismiss Homelessness Neglect Lawsuit

The judge has already ordered the city and county of Los Angeles to house all homeless people by October and explain why a state of emergency has never been called to address the homelessness crisis.

This photo from March 10, 2020 shows tents and people in the downtown neighborhood referred to as Skid Row in the city of Los Angeles. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday denied a bid by Los Angeles County to toss a lawsuit seeking rapid housing and health care for homeless people, finding the county has mismanaged the homeless crisis and played a role in shaping it. 

The organization LA Alliance for Human Rights sued the city and county of Los Angeles in March 2020 seeking local government-provided care for homeless people and swift construction of shelter and housing options for the unhoused. The group says the county fails to fund construction of a sufficient amount of housing for the poor and homeless and does not provide the appropriate level of health care needed for the growing unhoused population.

A month after the suit was filed, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter ordered city and county officials to house everyone living in the Skid Row community — a 50-square block, open-air encampment — by October.

The Central District of California judge also ordered county officials to audit funds allocated for fighting homelessness and for the city to place $1 billion in local funds in an impound account.

Attorneys for the county argued Carter’s ruling would unnecessarily push more people into crowded shelters or direct public funds to develop more temporary shelters instead of permanent housing.

The county also argued Skid Row is located in the city and authority to clear sidewalks there lies with city, not county, officials.

In a virtual hearing Monday on the county’s motion, Skip Miller, the county’s outside counsel, told Carter the court is in no position to dictate the county’s spending decisions in the fight against homelessness.

But in an 11-page ruling Tuesday, Carter rejected the county’s arguments and denied the motion to dismiss, writing that the court is well within its power to act if the government fails to address a crisis on the scale of what is present in LA County.

“If the court finds an ongoing constitutional violation, it is obligated to impose a remedy,” Carter wrote. “Budgetary and capacity concerns can be adequately addressed by the court by giving the party sufficient discretion in how to remedy the violation.”

Carter also found LA Alliance has sufficiently shown a state law claim of waste of taxpayer funds and that plaintiffs need not establish the county’s alleged fiscal irresponsibility is illegal.

“Considering the billions of dollars spent on homeless relief in recent years and the fact that homelessness rates and homeless deaths continue to grow exponentially in the face of such spending, there is little question that plaintiffs have made an adequate showing that at least some degree of government spending has been ‘unnecessary or useless’ in tackling the homelessness problem,” Carter wrote.

The judge also found that at this stage, LA Alliance has sufficiently shown county actions and policies have played a role in shaping and expanding the homelessness crisis.

“Considering the extensive evidence that defendant has mismanaged Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis and created a system plagued by systemic racism that has led to disproportionate danger for communities of color, the court cannot accept defendant’s argument that the county has not played a significant role in creating this crisis,” Carter wrote. 

Carter has scheduled two hearings in the case for the end of May that will address claims the county’s policies have fueled structural racism which in turn has led to a surge in homelessness and deaths of unhoused Black people.

Miller, who is with the firm Miller Barondess, said in a statement Tuesday the county is disappointed with Carter’s latest ruling and will continue its appeal of his injunction.

“We are disappointed but not surprised that the court has denied the county’s motion to dismiss,” Miller said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to pursue our appeal to the Ninth Circuit of the court’s preliminary injunction order.”

LA Alliance attorney Elizabeth Mitchell praised the decision and blasted the county.

“We appreciate Judge Carter’s swift decision on this matter. Unfortunately the county of Los Angeles seems to prefer paying private lawyers to find procedural escape hatches rather than putting its time and resources into working with the alliance, the city, and other community partners on a comprehensive settlement that would save and transform people’s lives,” Mitchell said in a statement.

Carter previously denied the county’s bid to stay the injunction pending an appeal of the order at the Ninth Circuit.

Homeless people living in the Skid Row community account for about 28% of the approximately 66,000 who are homeless in LA County, according to county data. In 2020, LA County reported a nearly 13% increase in the local homeless population, while the city of LA saw a 14% increase.

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