Los Angeles Open to Talk Settlement in Wide-Ranging Federal Homeless Lawsuit

The ongoing homeless crisis in Los Angeles has been called a humanitarian crisis by some advocates who argue local governments are not doing enough to confront the crisis.

This file photo from March 10, 2020 shows tents and people in the downtown neighborhood referred to as Skid Row in the city of Los Angeles. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The end may be in sight for a wide-ranging federal lawsuit against Los Angeles over its response to the growing homelessness crisis. Attorneys for the city and county of Los Angeles revealed in court on Thursday they’re ready to start settlement talks a month after a federal judge ordered them to put together a $1 billion plan to house all homeless people living in the Skid Row neighborhood.

Last month, U.S. District Judge David Carter ordered unaccompanied women and children living on Skid Row be housed within 90 days and families within 120 days. Carter pointed to structural racism’s role in the homelessness crisis and ordered the city and county to audit their response so far. The following day the county appealed the court’s ruling.

The ongoing lawsuit is a window into LA’s homelessness crisis and a granular examination of the mechanisms that fund social services. Positioned several blocks away from Skid Row is the federal courthouse where on Thursday Carter showed attorneys and elected officials a slideshow of homeless women caught in the rain. A long line of women in ponchos lined a wet sidewalk in one of the photos, while in another a woman slept on the ground next to a suit case and in another photo a woman crawled across a city street on her hands and knees.

“If that doesn’t break your heart than you don’t have a soul,” Carter said from the bench. “Many of you lawyers should get down there and take a look around.”

“Your honor, I totally get it,” attorney Skip Miller for the county said later in the hearing. “I’ve walked down Skid Row. It’s heart breaking. The county respects where you’re coming from. But you’ve got to decouple the legal issue from the work of elected officials.”

Miller argued that the initial lawsuit filed by a coalition of downtown business owners and residents does not bring up structural racism and the county is already providing services to address the crisis.

“Don’t mistake it for the county not wanting to address this issue,” Miller said. “We wanted to show your honor what we are doing. I’m not saying we’re not perfect… but we’re all over it.”

“They ask what more they can do?” General Jeff from the Skid Row Advisory Council asked in court. “Heck and believe there’s a heck of a lot more you can do.”

During the four-hour hearing, Carter showed the courtroom of city and county representatives that tens of millions in homeless funding was not spent by the county in the last few years.

“Los Angeles County should have been keeping track of its funding,” Carter said. “I keep wondering if we don’t have a money problem but an accounting problem.”

Over 66,400 people were homeless in LA County as of January 2020. That accounted for a 13% increase from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The LA Alliance for Human Rights sued the city and county last March over what they call a poor response to the homelessness crisis. In the last year, Carter has held court hearings on Skid Row, toured the neighborhood with elected officials and spoke to people living on the street. But even that line of communication stalled in the last several weeks after the county filed its appeal to the Ninth Circuit in response to Carter’s omnibus order.

Carter said a sense of urgency follows the crisis but he’s not seeing that from the county or city. When County Supervisor Hilda Solis testified on the success of a pilot program that would provide affordable housing and services in her district, Carter commended her efforts but said there needs to be more, hundreds more, of those types of programs.

“This whole city is crying for help right now,” Carter said.

As though responding to Carter’s call for help, the attorneys later in the hearing announced they want to start settlement talks.

Attorney Shayla Myers with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, intervenors in the lawsuit, said the initial lawsuit brought by property owners was concerned about the visible impact of homelessness in their community.

“This case is about gentrification. It has always been about gentrification,” Myers said, noting that the emphasis has been to push homeless people out of the neighborhood. “When the last settlement talks broke down, it was because they could not move beyond enforcement.”

Attorney Elizabeth Mitchell, with the coalition who brought the lawsuit, said the focus for their group is on interim housing, wraparound services and not enforcement.

“Somehow being a property owner, we’re sort of portrayed as these greedy individuals,” Mitchell said. She added structural racism, like what is referenced in Carter’s 110-page order, is present throughout the coalition’s lawsuit.

The Ninth Circuit could send the case back to Carter’s court where the parties would have to contend with that omnibus order. Or the parties could agree to a settlement. Or the case could go to trial.

Either way, Carter said time is of the essence.

“Well, you hold the future of the city in your hands,” Carter said to the attorneys. “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

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