LA Ordered to House People Camping Near Freeways

A lone campsite underneath an LA County freeway overpass. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge has ordered the relocation of anyone camping near a freeway in Los Angeles to a shelter space, hotel room or a safe parking site to protect them from car crashes, toxic fumes and — in the event of an earthquake — a falling section of the freeway.

The order stems from an ongoing lawsuit over the growing homeless population in LA County and within the city. Since being filed in March, the emphasis in the case has pivoted to the spread of Covid-19 on the streets.

Approximately 59,000 people are homeless in LA County and roughly 6,000 to 7,000 live near freeway overpasses, underpasses and ramps, according to the county’s homeless service agency.

The preliminary injunction issued by the court Friday will bring sweeping changes to those who are living in those sites and for local government agencies.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter’s order is meant to address the risks of camping near a freeway, including exposure to pollution or being hit by a vehicle.

In his 7-page order, Carter wrote the primary focus of the lawsuit brought by the group LA Alliance for Human Rights remains Covid-19.

“Without adequate access to shelter, hygiene products, and sanitation facilities, individuals experiencing homelessness face a greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, and an outbreak in the homeless community would threaten the general public as well,” Carter wrote.

He cited the California Welfare and Institutions Code about “every county and every city” providing relief and support for the poor, indigent persons and elderly, which should be “provided promptly and humanely.”

“There is, at the very least, a serious question as to whether the city of Los Angeles and county of Los Angeles have failed to meet these obligations under California law,” writes Carter. “By providing inadequate housing — such that individuals experiencing homelessness must shelter in inherently dangerous locations — the city of Los Angeles and county of Los Angeles may also have exposed the homeless residents living near freeways to a public nuisance.”

His order to humanely relocate those living in those conditions takes effect May 22 at noon. He said the county and city will also use hotel and motel rooms acquired under the state’s Project Roomkey, a massive leasing initiative meant to house homeless people who are at risk of catching the novel coronavirus.

Carter found seven conditions must be met when those homeless camps are relocated: providing enough space for physical distancing; handwashing stations and showers; nursing staff who can test individuals for communicable diseases and other health conditions; security at the shelters; and allowing individuals who are asked to relocate to bring their belongings with them.

Before the freeway camps are relocated the people living there must be given notice about where they will be relocated. After the notices are given the city and county will be allowed to enforce anti-camping laws near the freeways.

“That is, while an individual experiencing homelessness could not be ordered to enter a shelter facility, they could be ordered to relocate an adequate distance away from freeway locations,” Carter wrote.

Initially, the lawsuit brought by the LA Alliance for Human Rights sought to address the growing homeless population in downtown LA and the Skid Row area. The alliance is made up of business owners, downtown residents and formerly homeless residents.

In April, city officials said they were ready to begin settlement negotiations in the case and Carter has been holding offsite court hearings with the parties.

Intervenors in the case include nonprofit LA Community Action Network, LA Catholic Worker and the Orange County Catholic Worker.

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