Homeless residents will not have to pack up tents and makeshift shelters during the day, for as long as emergency measures remain in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to temporarily suspend part of a controversial ordinance that requires tents to come down during daytime hours. Cleanings around encampments will continue, and a provision of the ordinance that prevents unhoused residents from storing bulky items in public spaces will remain in effect.
“The only thing that’s worse than having lots of people living in encampments is throwing them out of the encampments and making them more vulnerable,” said Councilmember Mike Bonin.
The move to halt enforcement of daytime tent restrictions—which activists complain results frequently in the removal or destruction of the only form of shelter that some people possess—comes as city and county officials deploy hand-washing stations to encampments and institute new shelter protocols to prevent the virus from spreading to unhoused residents.
The new coronavirus hasn’t been identified in anyone experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. But more than 25,000 people in the city live without shelter, and a disproportionately large share of those who lack permanent housing are older adults or have chronic health problems that put them at risk for the more serious form of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“The problem is really compounded by the fact that... people experiencing homelessness live, on average, 20 to 30 years less than everyone else,” said Los Angeles County Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer Monday. “And on average, they have more chronic healthcare conditions that they’re living with and acute healthcare conditions.”
Heidi Marston, interim director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told the council that public health officials have advised that “if folks are not symptomatic… having them take their tent down for a cleaning would not be optimal.”
Jed Parriott, a spokesperson for the Services Not Sweeps coalition, which released a list of demands on Friday urging local officials to take action to protect residents who lack housing from COVID-19 says allowing tents to remain is “such a common sense thing.”
The coalition has long resisted enforcement of laws limiting how much people can store in public areas and restricting their ability to sleep on sidewalks and in vehicles.
“What does ‘stay home’ mean to a homeless person?” writes the coalition in a statement. “It might mean ‘stay in your tent or RV as much as possible.’”
On Monday, Mayor Eric Garcetti lifted the city’s overnight parking restrictions, including those that limit RV parking to approved non-residential streets.
Bonin acknowledged last week that steps taken up to that point would not be sufficient to prevent the virus from spreading among unhoused residents.
He announced Monday that cleaning teams assembled by nonprofit organization Five Keys would work to clean in and around encampments, and that sanitation workers would distribute new rodent-proof trash cans to unhoused communities near Third and Rose avenues in Venice, where mobile showers and bathrooms are also being installed.
Ferrer told reporters Monday that county officials are trying to ensure that as many people as possible have access to shelter. But some unhoused residents say they’re wary of temporary shelter spaces, which frequently provide little separation between beds.
“An open floor plan in shelters is both dangerous to the epidemic and the very opposite of what should be offered to the homeless,” wrote residents of an Echo Park community of tents and makeshift living spaces in an open letter to Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell last week.
Parriott says using empty motel rooms as temporary housing—something Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested as a possibility—would be a better option.
“If you say we have a motel room for you, I guarantee you a lot of unhoused people will take that,” he says.
In an all-day meeting on Tuesday, the City Council took multiple steps to aid those impacted by the virus, and by efforts to contain its spread. Among them was a plea to Newsom for motel rooms to house some of the nearly 30,000 people who lack shelter in the city of Los Angeles.
“Early on I said there were three things everyone needed to do: Stay home when you’re sick, wash your hands frequently, and have a medical provider that you can be in touch with,” said Ferrer Monday. “We all know that none of those three things are realistic for people experiencing homelessness who are unsheltered.”