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For now, LA can’t seize ‘bulky’ items from homeless camps

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Judge says seizing large items from unhoused residents is not a “reasonable” solution to the homeless crisis

LA Times via Getty Images

In a decision hailed as a victory by homeless advocates, the city was ordered Monday to suspend enforcement of a law that allows clean-up crews to take “bulky” items—like bedding and metal push carts—from encampments.

The temporary injunction was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer, who said seizing large items from unhoused residents is not a “reasonable” solution to “widespread problems” generated by the region’s homeless crisis, including, he wrote in his decision, crime and the accumulation of items on public sidewalks.

The judge noted that city crews can continue to clear away items—but they can’t make decisions about what to take based solely on size.

“Although the city would understandably prefer homeless residents not ‘appropriate’ public areas... the bulky item provision cannot be the solution to that problem,” Fischer wrote.

An estimated 17,620 people live in vehicles, tents, and makeshift shelters across the city, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. With nowhere else to go, residents have formed encampments on sidewalks, in parks, and alongside the river and freeways.

Flooded with complaints from business owners about impassible sidewalks and “mountains of trash” at those camps, city leaders had taken a hard-line approach toward enforcing a city law known as 56.11. The law regulates the storage of personal property in public areas, including the portion that was temporarily struck down by Fischer: “No person shall store any bulky item in a public area.”

Under the law, a bulky item is anything that is too large to fit into a 60-gallon container —with the lid closed—with the exception of a “constructed tent, operational bicycle or operational walker, crutch or wheelchair.”

In July, local organization Ktown for All filed a federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of seven homeless residents challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Ktown for All, has framed the bulky item provision as a punitive measure aimed squarely at homeless residents, who have reported that their personal possessions are repeatedly thrown away or placed into city-owned storage rooms, sometimes with no warning.

“If the bike chain on my bike broke, and I had to leave my bike on the sidewalk, technically my bike would be stored on the sidewalk under the definition of bulky items and 56.11,” says Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which is representing the plaintiffs.

“No one would ever imagine the city could walk up to me, tell me my bike was not operational, and throw it away—but that’s what this ordinance allows the city to do for unhoused people and their belongings,” she says.

The injunction will be in place until the lawsuit is resolved. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would not comment on ongoing litigation.

But when the lawsuit was filed, the mayor said in a statement that finding “a better way forward” should entail discussions with the city—not lawsuits.

“We have to stop the decades-long cycle of hoping courtrooms will solve our homelessness crisis and our public health challenges,” he said. “This dynamic has only resulted in the deterioration of conditions on the streets, even as more housing units and shelter beds are being built.”

The head of the city’s Unified Homeless Response Center, which helps coordinate homeless camp clean-ups, has not responded to a message seeking comment. But at least until this week, crews had been told that “disposal of materials that are not allowed under 56.11 is not voluntary.”

To settle a separate lawsuit, the city had already agreed to stop seizing items around Skid Row without evidence “that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health/safety, is evidence of a crime, or is contraband.” That’s in effect until 2022.