LOS ANGELES (CN) — A California federal judge issued a ground-shaking ruling Tuesday ordering Los Angeles city and county officials to audit funds allocated for fighting homelesness and undertake sweeping actions to house homeless people living in a 50-square block, open-air encampment by October.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter slammed city and county officials for consistently squandering opportunities to solve the homelessness crisis — even when provided robust state, federal and local funds to do so --- and presiding over the gross mismanagement of funds meant to provide shelter and health services for homeless people.
Carter ordered officials to house unaccompanied women and children living in the 50-square block Skid Row community within 90 days, entire families in 120 days, and all other houseless people living there within 180 days.
Homeless people living in the Skid Row community account for about 28% of the more than 60,000 who are homeless in LA County.
In the ruling, Carter cited the rapid spread of diseases such as typhus, lack of sufficient toilets and showers and the increase in deaths among the homeless in Skid Row as justification for the far-reaching court action.
“This court cannot idly bear witness to preventable deaths,” Carter wrote. “This ever-worsening public health and safety emergency demands immediate, life-saving action. The city and county of Los Angeles have shown themselves to be unable or unwilling to devise effective solutions to LA’s homelessness crisis.”
Carter said the city and county may be violating the constitutional rights of the homeless population by failing to provide sufficient shelter and in particular failing to stem the disproportionate surge in deaths among Black houseless people.
“When state inaction has become so egregious, and the state so nonfunctional, as to create a death rate for Black people so disproportionate to their racial composition in the general population, the court can only reach one conclusion — state inaction has become state action that is strongly likely in violation of the Equal Protection Clause,” Carter wrote.
Despite making up only 8% of the general LA population, Black people made up 42% of the homeless population, according to county data.
The 110-page ruling stems from a lawsuit filed in March 2020 by the LA Alliance for Human Rights seeking a legal mandate requiring the city and county to provide shelter space to house everyone living on the street, particularly in LA’s Skid Row area.
The alliance — made up of business owners, downtown residents and formerly homeless residents — sought a court-mandated plan to reduce encampments, provide care for homeless people and swift construction of shelter and housing.
Last week, the group filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking immediate action. Carter granted the motion Tuesday and canceled a scheduled May 10 hearing.
Earlier this year, Carter hosted an unprecedented federal hearing with the parties in the lawsuit inside a large tent erected in a Skid Row parking lot.
LA Alliance chair Don Steier applauded Carter's injunction.
"The judge has recognized the fact of which nearly every citizen in Los Angeles is already acutely aware: that the status quo isn’t working and cannot be allowed to continue," Steier said in a statement. "This order gives us hope that the solutions will finally start outpacing the challenges."
A spokesperson for LA City Attorney Mike Feurer said his office is reviewing the preliminary injunction ruling.
In 2020, LA County reported a nearly 13% increase in the local homeless population and a 14% increase for the city of LA. In total, more than 66,000 unsheltered people were counted.
A spokesperson for county counsel did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
With Carter presiding over the lawsuit, officials have taken significant action to address the crisis of homelessness.
This past June, the city and county agreed to build over 6,000 new beds for the homeless population over a 10-month period. Under the agreement filed with the court, the county would pay the city $60 million per year for 5 years to build the new beds and fund health and housing services.
In a preliminary injunction issued this past May, Carter ordered LA to provide shelter, a hotel room or a safe parking site to people living near or under freeways in order to protect them from car crashes, toxic fumes and falling concrete.
Carter is also overseeing federal settlements allowing nearby Orange County cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances if they provide a certain amount of shelter options for people sleeping in their streets and parks.
The judge’s ruling comes a day after LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced an ambitious city spending plan that boosts investments in small businesses, gang reduction, youth programs and allocates $1 billion to combat homelessness.
Carter’s ruling specifically addresses Garcetti’s “justice budget,” saying the court is unimpressed with the city’s plan given that it failed to meet its goal of providing 15,000 publicly funded hotel rooms to homeless people through a state program called Project Roomkey.
As of this month, only 2,079 rooms that received funding from Roomkey were operational and just over 1,690 were actually occupied by homeless people.
“In spite of abundant funding drawn from local, state and federal budgets, the city and county fell far short of their stated goal,” Carter wrote in the ruling. “This embarrassing performance does not inspire confidence, to say the least, in the city’s new budget. From mishandling Project Roomkey to sinking $1.2 billion in the ever-delinquent Proposition HHH, Los Angeles has documented a long history of plans or budgets that have fallen short, year after year, as the homelessness crisis worsens.”
Carter ordered the city to place the $1 billion earmarked for combatting homelessness in escrow with funding streams reported to the court within seven days.
The judge also ordered audits within 90 days of all state, federal and local funds provided to LA’s fight against homelessness and a full accounting of developers receiving funds from Proposition HHH, a voter-approved tax initiative ostensibly funding construction of 10,000 housing units.
Garcetti’s proposal also includes a pilot program that would provide $1,000 in universal basic income to 2,000 of the city’s neediest families for one full year.
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