Thursday, January 26, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

LA Appeal of Order to House Homeless Lands at Ninth Circuit

Attorneys for the city and county of Los Angeles say a federal judge’s order to house homeless people by October would stifle ongoing efforts to resolve the larger crisis in the region.

(CN) — A Los Angeles city attorney told a Ninth Circuit panel Wednesday a federal judge’s far-reaching injunction in a lawsuit over homelessness in the region is impeding elected officials’ efforts to address the complex crisis. 

The city and county of Los Angeles are the targets of a lawsuit by an association of property owners, developers and homeless people seeking a court-mandated plan to place homeless people in some form of shelter by the fall.

Plaintiff LA Alliance for Human Rights also seeks a strategy for reducing unhoused encampments in the region and swift construction of more shelter and housing options.

In April, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter issued a preliminary injunction ordering city and county officials to undertake sweeping actions to house homeless people living in Skid Row — a 50-square block, open-air encampment near downtown LA — by October. He gave officials 90 days to house unaccompanied women and children living in the Skid Row community and 120 days to find shelter for families.

Attorneys for the city and county announced their respective appeals a day after Carter’s order was issued, saying the injunction was likely unlawful and would disrupt the city and county’s legislative authorities.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, LA deputy city attorney Michael Walsh told a three-judge panel Carter’s injunction ignores the policy-making and implementation duties of elected officials. 

“Homelessness is a chronic and pervasive problem that requires significant resources and attention,” Walsh said. “This court has identified its own policy preferences. This is classic judicial overreach and also interferes with the city’s ongoing homelessness projects.” 

U.S. Circuit Judge John B. Owens, a Barack Obama appointee, asked Walsh what he thinks Carter should do instead given the scale of a crisis the LA region is dealing with.

“This is also judicial frustration,” Owens said. “In [Carter’s] opinion, there’s been a dismal failure by officials. So what is he supposed to do? Sit back and watch LA disintegrate in this area?”

Walsh said the city has committed billions of dollars to construct housing, temporary shelters and other projects but can’t keep pace with the growth of homelessness.

“This is not a trivial response,” Walsh said. “The city is not neglecting the problem, it’s just the problem is vast and complex.”

Carter previously shot down a similar argument by LA County, saying the court is well within its authority to act because, at that stage, he couldn’t find the county had not played a direct role in shaping a crisis that disproportionately impacts communities of color.

An annual homeless count found 66,436 people were unhoused in LA County in 2020, a nearly 13% increase from 2019. In LA, more than 41,000 people were homeless in 2020, up 16% from the prior year.

Despite making up only 8% of the general LA population, Black individuals make up 42% of the region's unhoused population according to county data.

Homeless people living in the Skid Row community account for about 28% of the county’s homeless.

Attorneys for LA County said in their appellate brief that while the crisis is immense, the public has elected the Board of Supervisors — not private citizens nor associations — to formulate and implement policies to solve it.

“While appellees and the district court might have different ideas about how to tackle the homelessness crisis, private citizens and the unelected judicial branch are not empowered to dictate policymaking in the county of Los Angeles,” attorneys wrote in the brief. “This mandatory injunction substitutes the district court’s judgment for the judgment of elected officials. In doing so, it steps over the boundary between the Legislature and the judiciary and violates separation of powers.”

But LA Alliance said in its brief that city and county officials have allowed the homelessness crisis to explode on their watch. 

“The crisis is no act of God and it is no accident,” attorneys for the group wrote in the brief. “It is the consequence of conduct by the city and county of Los Angeles stretching back decades and continuing to this day. And the crisis crescendos — unhoused persons now perish at rate of five per day on the streets of one of the wealthiest cities in the world.”

Judge Owens asked whether the parties would consider settling the case. Walsh said settlement discussions are ongoing but could not provide the panel a current update.

“Projects are moving forward with or without the settlement,” Walsh said.

Matthew Umhofer of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer, an attorney for LA Alliance, told the panel the group brought the lawsuit to bring a settlement that would usher in a court-monitored plan to solve the crisis. He also said any challenge to Alliance members’ standing to bring the suit — and meet certain requirements such as presenting evidence of irreparable harm — is resolved by the fact the group includes homeless people who need housing.

“I can think of no more irreparable harm than people dying in the streets,” Umhofer told the panel. 

Carter’s injunction blasted the city and county’s slow pace at bringing new housing units online and failure to meet a goal of providing 15,000 publicly funded hotel rooms to homeless people.

Mira Hashmall of Miller Barondess, an attorney for LA County, told the panel the county supports a housing-first model that sees permanent housing as the strongest long-term solution to homelessness.

“The judge believes housing is health care, but we can't legislate from the bench,” Hashmall said. “The county is moving mountains to address this crisis. The injunction is an abuse of discretion and should be vacated.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Jacqueline H. Nguyen and Michelle T. Friedland, both Obama appointees, rounded out the panel.

Follow Martín Macías on Twitter

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.