LA Ready to Begin Talks to Settle Homeless Lawsuit

People living on the streets in the Downtown Los Angeles neighborhood known as Skid Row. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Prior to the pandemic sparked by the novel coronavirus, there was the widespread calamity of homelessness in the city of Los Angeles. City officials said Thursday they are in talks to draft an ordinance to address shelter bed shortages.

The effort could result in a quality-of-life ordinance and achievement of important targets in response to a growing homeless population.

LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino announced the potential settlement at a federal court hearing in the Alexandria Ballroom in downtown LA where District Judge David O. Carter is overseeing an ongoing federal lawsuit filed against LA city and county over their lack of response to the homeless crisis.

The case has taken on an unprecedented sense of urgency amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initially filed on March 3, the group LA Alliance for Human Rights cited a lack of results from local agencies to build affordable housing or place people into temporary shelter space. They sought court intervention, like Carter’s involvement in a similar lawsuit that played out in Orange County.

Proceedings in Carter’s courtroom are unprecedented, with Carter advocating for less litigation and more conversations in and out of court between parties.

“Don’t think this is a one-person effort,” said Carter at Thursday’s hearing. “This is much more than that.”

Carter said efforts taken by city and county leaders in LA has caused “inertia” on the issue of homelessness, but those settlement talks are going to require “an incredible amount of work.” 

Then there is the “not in my back yard” attitude that has bubbled to the surface surrounding efforts to help the homeless during the pandemic

On April 3, California Gavin Newsom announced the statewide initiative Project Roomkey to house elderly and homeless people with serious health conditions in 15,000 hotel and motel room. LA has also set out to house people in hotels so they can safely isolate.

But several California cities have called the process flawed or argued they were not involved in the decision-making.

On April 21, the city of Norwalk threatened a hotel planning to participate in Project Roomkey, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in state court. In its complaint, LA County says Norwalk officials enacted an ordinance to stop hotel and motel owners from housing homeless people without prior approval from the city.

Other cities say they were blindsided by Project Roomkey’s rollout. That includes the city of Lawndale, with a population of 32,000 in southwest LA County.

“We would have liked to have been partners with the county,” said Lawndale Mayor Robert Pullen-Miles at the status conference.

Project Roomkey is temporary and based on 90-day lease agreements, but Pullen-Miles asked what happens after that.

County officials were on hand to offer some answers to the Lawndale officials, but the county’s outside counsel Louis Miller with Miller Barondess said, “We’re going to get this done. That’s why I’m here. That’s what’s going to happen. If anyone has any problems, call me.”

Everyone at the hearing wore face masks, including Carter who also wore colorful surgical gloves. He pulled down his mask to address the crowd and showed slides from a Syrian refugee camp maintained by the United Nations. Carter routinely travels on behalf of the U.N. and the U.S. State Department to meet with judicial officers worldwide.

“Doesn’t look too good. Does it?” Carter asked as he pointed to the photograph of the refugee camp. Then he showed a slide of LA sidewalks, lined with tents where people live and surrounded by trash.

Carter said bluntly that the Syrian refugee camp had far superior resources than LA. But he noted it doesn’t have to be that way, which is why it is important for the parties to work together.

The nonprofit Orange County Catholic Worker, an intervenor in the federal case, has raised the issue of safe recreational vehicle parking in LA’s Skid Row. The area accounts for about 28% of the approximately 59,000 homeless in LA County.

Carter previously criticized the city and county’s slow response to open parking lots for RVs. Plans for pallet shelters and safe parking sites are still being worked out and the parties will provide a status report in the next few days and meet again for another status conference in one week.

Rob Wilcox with the LA City Attorney’s office said the office would not comment on the settlement talks. But he said the city would work with Judge Carter “to explore ways to resolve the case and address our homeless crisis.”

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