LA Mayor: Declaring Homeless Emergency Won’t Help End Decades-Long Crisis

The federal judge had ordered Los Angeles city and county officials to explain why they haven’t declared an emergency to combat homelessness.

In this 2019 photo, a homeless woman moves her belongings in early morning from a street near Los Angeles City Hall (in the background) as crews prepared to clean the area. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

LOS ANGELES — After being ordered by a federal judge to explain why a homelessness emergency hadn’t been declared, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told the court Tuesday issuing such a declaration wouldn’t provide him or the City Council with any additional authority to combat the crisis.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter issued a preliminary injunction on April 20 ordering LA city and county officials to house unaccompanied women and children living in the Skid Row community within 90 days and families there within 120 days.

Every homeless person living in the 50-square block, open-air encampment must be offered some form of housing by October, Carter ordered.

The Central District of California judge ordered Garcetti to explain why he hadn’t issued an emergency declaration which he said would grant them authority to “bypass bureaucracy” and address the crisis expeditiously. 

“To this day, Mayor Garcetti has not employed the emergency powers given to him by the city charter despite overwhelming evidence that the magnitude of the homelessness crisis is ‘beyond the control of the normal services’ of the city government,” Carter wrote. “An emergency declaration under the city charter would give the mayor the power to ‘promulgate, issue and enforce rules, regulations, orders and directives which the [mayor] considers necessary for the protection of life and property.’ These rules would be effective immediately upon their issuance, allowing Mayor Garcetti to bypass the bureaucracy and eliminate the inefficiencies that currently stifle progress on homelessness — still, the mayor has not acted, while other localities have.”

The mayor has authority under the city charter to declare a local emergency when an issue spirals out of the control of emergency officials and other branches of city government. In the past, emergencies have been declared in the event of wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

In a letter from Garcetti included in a brief filed Tuesday, the mayor explained his position on issuing such a declaration.

“There is no precedent nor clear authority for using a local emergency declaration for a decades-long social crisis involving multiple government systems as opposed to a natural disaster (e.g. fires, earthquakes), civil unrest, or the current Covid public health emergency,” Garcetti wrote. “As a city, we have determined that a declaration of an emergency will not provide me as mayor, nor the members of the LA City Council, with any additional authority or powers in support of our commitment to implement immediate and comprehensive solutions to address the crisis of people experiencing homelessness in the city of Los Angeles.”

Garcetti said the city is already operating under a 2015 shelter crisis declaration and other charter amendments that grant authority to use public buildings as shelter and access unspecified city fund sources.

“Additionally, I am reserving the right to continue emergency powers related to homelessness past the conclusion of the Covid-19 pandemic emergency,” Garcetti wrote.

The judge acknowledged the city’s shelter emergency but wrote the declaration appears to be empty words and platitudes.

“Homeless individuals continue to die in record numbers; the homeless population continues to grow; and government inertia continues to plague already insufficient relief efforts,” Carter wrote in the April 20 injunction. “Six years after the words were written, the Times Editorial Board’s proclamation that the shelter crisis declaration was a ‘farce and a waste of time’ continues to ring true. It is clear that Mayor Garcetti can draw on his power to declare a local emergency under the LA city charter in order to make progress towards solving the homelessness crisis.”

Carter also ordered the city to place $1 billion in funds in an escrow account to ensure it will be spent on various forms of housing for the homeless.

Attorneys for LA city and county filed appeals with the Ninth Circuit and asked Carter to stay the injunction pending appeal. Carter denied the motions but granted a two-month extension of his order to place $1 billion in escrow.

Garcetti said in the letter to the court approval of the $1 billion by the City Council — along with federal and state funds — will provide the city with resources to direct a “FEMA-level response” to the homelessness crisis.

Attorneys for LA County filed their own response to Carter’s order, saying that the LA County Board of Supervisors already declared a homeless emergency on Dec. 6, 2016.

In a supplemental brief supporting its motion to dismiss the lawsuit by local nonprofit LA Alliance for Human Rights, attorneys for LA County said Monday the county has no authority to enforce anti-vagrancy laws in Skid Row and no powers to clear sidewalks there.

The county also said Carter’s court is not the best arena for dealing with the homelessness crisis.

“While the county shares the goal of providing shelter to all people experiencing homelessness, this is not the proper forum to address how this should be accomplished,” the county said in its brief. “The problem of homelessness is multifaceted and involves complex issues of mental health, domestic violence, drug abuse and dependency, education, public housing, and personal finance. There are no well-pled allegations of fact showing causation by the county.” 

Carter scheduled a May 10 hearing on the county’s motion to toss the complaint.

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 2020, LA County reported a nearly 13% increase in the local homeless population, while the city of LA saw a 14% increase. In total, more than 66,000 unsheltered people were counted.

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