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Mayor promises to refill homeless hygiene stations after scolding from judge

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The judge says he’s “gravely concerned”

Homeless camps in Skid Row.
Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

Starting today, hundreds of hand-washing stations at homeless encampments—one of the main lines of defense afforded to the vulnerable population amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic—will be refilled and serviced daily.

The promise issued by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday night comes after a federal judge skewered local officials for letting the stations dry up. In an order to city and county leaders issued earlier on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter called the maintenance “inadequate” for a public health crisis.

An earlier report filed by the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles as part of an ongoing civil lawsuit over LA’s homeless crisis cited an April 1 report by Curbed LA contributor Lexis-Olivier Ray, who had visited stations in the Westlake and MacArthur Park area and found multiple stations had been without soap or water for days.

That federal lawsuit is unfolding in the most unusual way: emergency hearings are taking place not in the federal court house, but in the Alexandria Hotel, and the judge is making first-hand observations, visiting encampments and Skid Row to check on conditions himself.

In Wednesday’s order, he reported that he had visited Skid Row to test out hygiene stations that have been installed so that homeless residents, many of whom live without access to restrooms, can wash their hands. He found that more than 80 percent of the hand-washing stations in Skid Row were without water.

“The Court’s observations of handwashing stations without water or regular servicing—in spite of representations made by Defendants City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles—have caused the Court to become gravely concerned that Skid Row and the surrounding area do not have adequate sanitation facilities to meet the COVID-19 crisis.”

The city has contracted with various vendors to place and maintain 410 hand-washing stations around Los Angeles over the past few weeks. The Legal Aid Foundation has argued that’s not enough to serve “the nearly 27,000 people living in encampments and in vehicles, who are spread out over approximately 500 square miles.”

Hand-washing is considered one of the most important steps people can take to avoid contracting COVID-19, a disease that has killed 223 people in Los Angeles County. The first death was reported less than one month ago, on March 11.

But the better solution for the homeless population is housing. By early next week, city and county officials are gearing up to open more than 1,340 beds in hotels and motels for people living on streets and in shelters. Additionally, the city is converting recreation centers at local parks into emergency shelters, and has installed 563 beds at 13 locations.

These are temporary solutions. Permanent affordable housing is the ultimate fix, but it’s expensive and time-consuming to build. And, as the Los Angeles Times reported today, experts expect the pandemic and weakening economy to make production even more challenging, as demand grows and tax revenue and financing becomes scarcer.