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LA homelessness lawsuit nears end as county agrees to settlement terms

It's the beginning of the end for a lawsuit which at times threatened to completely upend the expensive and exceedingly complex system that fights homelessness in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — After months of negotiations, Los Angeles County finally agreed to settle its part in the LA Alliance lawsuit over the region's homelessness crisis.

Though the details are not yet finalized, under the "settlement framework" the county has 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," according to a fact sheet released by the county. The county already spends more than half a billion dollars year to "prevent and address" homelessness.

The new funding will pay for things like "case management, medical and mental health care, and substance use disorder services for eligible occupants of the 10,200 permanent housing units and 3,100 interim housing beds that the city has promised to build as part of its own separate settlement with LA Alliance," said the county's lawyer Skip Miller, in a written statement. "The county will also pay for 300 additional beds for people experiencing homelessness with mental health or substance use disorders. And the county will increase the number of its street outreach teams so that at least one will be assigned to each of the 15 LA City Council districts."

The settlement will need to be approved by the county's five-person elected Board of Supervisors, and then approved by U.S. District Judge David Carter.

It marks the beginning of the end for a lawsuit which, at times, threatened to completely upend the expensive and exceedingly complex system that fights homelessness in Los Angeles. The final outcome appears to have simply forced the city and county to spend a bit more money on housing and services — a marginal victory, perhaps, but hardly the revolutionary change the original complaint asked for.

The suit was filed in March 2020, days before the Covid lockdowns began, by a coalition of downtown business interests, homeless service providers, and a few unhoused people. Although much of the complaint focused on conditions on Skid Row, it initially sought a legally enforceable mandate to provide shelter to every unhoused person in the county — a "right to shelter" law, which exists in New York City.

The case was assigned to Judge Carter in Santa Ana – in fact, the complaint was modeled after a similar suit in Orange County that Carter presided over, in which Carter ordered the county to house hundreds of homeless people living along the Santa Ana River.

Both the city and the county objected to the suit, as did a number of progressive antipoverty groups like the Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. Progressive groups argued the suit, if successful, would lead to mass displacement of homeless people, rather than them being given permanent homes to live in.

Carter, 76, immediately became the start of the proceedings, walking the streets of Skid Row on numerous occasions, his face covered by a large N95 mask, taking stock of the situation — and then berating attorneys in court about the conditions he witnessed. The walking tours earned him glowing reviews. When the Los Angeles Times profiled Carter, the headline read: "This federal judge is risking his life to save homeless people from the coronavirus."

In April 2021, Carter dropped his bombshell: he ordered city and county officials to house every homeless person living within the 50-block area of Skid Row, and he gave them just 180 days to do it — 90 days for all unaccompanied women and children. Not only that, he ordered the $1 billion that Mayor Eric Garcetti had just pledged to be spent on homelessness frozen in an account, including funds created by a bond measure voters passed in 2016.

But the bombshell was short-lived. That September, the Ninth Circuit overturned Carter's 110-page order, much of which had relied on the existence of "structural racism."

“None of plaintiffs’ claims is based on racial discrimination, and the district court’s order is largely based on unpled claims and theories,” the three-judge panel wrote, in a rather stern rebuke. “To fill the gap, the district court impermissibly resorted to independent research and extra-record evidence.”

What followed was months of behind the scenes negotiations between the plaintiffs and the defendants, but also between the defendant city and the county. The county, which traditionally has paid for mental health services, social services and case management, rather than housing construction, appeared determined not to have its responsibilities expanded in any fundamental way. The city argued that housing construction was mental health services; that is, you can't be treated for mental illness without a roof over your head.

In April, the city announced it was settling the suit without the county, agreeing to 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. It was a deceptively small concession — the city already had about 13,000 units "in the pipeline," in various stages of planning or construction, although the plaintiff's attorneys said that that number was already the result of pressure put on the city by the alliance's lawsuit.

Judge Carter approved the settlement in June, calling the deal "fair, reasonable, and adequate,” the result of "long and deliberate good-faith negotiations.”

There are, according to the latest homeless count, more than 11,000 unsheltered homeless people in the county living with a serious mental illness, and more than 14,000 with a substance abuse disorder. The number of people who fit into both categories is unclear. Since under the settlement framework the county is only agreeing to add 300 new beds, that would seem to leave quite a few people in those two categories unhoused.

If nothing else, the deal signals a warming of relations between the city and the county.

“Now is the time to really put all of our forces together,” said Mayor Garcetti, speaking at a joint press conference Monday. “It only works with the county, city and the community together.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Holly Mitchell agreed, saying, "No unhoused person benefits until we all coordinate and work together,”

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