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Nonprofit sues Los Angeles over public records related to homeless policy

Human Rights Watch intends to use the records to write a report on LA's past and future plans to tackle homelessness.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The nonprofit advocacy group Human Rights Watch sued the city of Los Angeles Wednesday to force the city to comply with its public records request for a trove of files relating to the city's homelessness policy.

There are more than 63,000 men and women living without a home in Los Angeles County, a number that has climbed steadily over the last decade. During the first year of the pandemic, the city of LA took a largely hands-off approach with respect to homeless encampments, allowing the homeless to "shelter in place." Thus, the number and size of tents on sidewalks and in parks increased exponentially.

In the fall of 2021, the City Council reversed course, banning encampments near certain locations such as freeway underpasses, schools, libraries and homeless shelters. Activists say this new policy in effect criminalizes homelessness and accomplishes little other than shunting the unhoused from neighborhood to neighborhood, since there aren't nearly enough shelter beds to go around. There are enough shelters for roughly 39% of the unhoused population, according to the LA Homeless Services Authority.

"The public deserves to know how this change in policy is working and the effects it’s having on homelessness," Human Rights Watch says in its complaint. "For this reason, Human Rights Watch seeks information about the city of Los Angeles’ treatment of unhoused people."

The documents requested likely amount to thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of pages.

"Human Rights Watch is trying to get information about how the city of LA is addressing this issue, under the belief that this issue is something the public needs to understand," said attorney Selina MacLaren, who's representing the nonprofit.

A spokesman for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said his office doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Among other documents being sought by Human Rights Watch: the per-unit cost of every type of shelter, including safe camping sites, tiny shelters and congregant shelters; all communications around encampment cleanups; all contracts related to sanitation services, like portable toilets and hand washing stations; and a full accounting of all affordable housing built and being built.

The request singles out one nonprofit — Urban Alchemy, which has become one of the go-to service providers used by City Council district offices for homeless outreach. The San Francisco-based group was involved in clearing out the homeless from Echo Park lake, and also received a contract to respond to certain 911 emergency calls that involve the homeless.

According to the most recently available tax forms, Human Rights Watch takes in between $70 million and $85 million in revenue each year and paid its executive director, Kenneth Roth, roughly $600,000 in 2019.

MacLaren said that among its other advocacy work, Human Rights Watch files public records requests and publishes reports based on the information received. In this case, she said, the report would focus not just on what LA has done in the last few years, but whether or not there are "effective and humane long-term solutions on the horizon."

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