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LA now has until September to shelter homeless living along freeways

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The city and county are arguing over who will pay for the shelters

Tents occupied by the homeless line a freeway overpass in Downtown Los Angeles.
AFP via Getty Images

A federal judge is giving Los Angeles a lot more time to move thousands of homeless residents away from freeways.

The city and county now have until September 1 to “humanely” relocate anyone camped within 500 feet of an overpass, underpass, or ramp and into a shelter or “an alternative housing option,” such as a safe parking site or hotel or motel room.

The extension was granted today by U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter in an updated preliminary junction that was initially set to go into effect at noon.

Carter has said that is “unreasonably dangerous” to allow people to live in areas that may be contaminated with lead and other toxins or that carry increased risk of being injured or killed in a car crash or earthquake. He said he was compelled to intervene because neither the city or the county appeared “to be addressing this problem with any urgency.”

“This is a call for local governments to embrace their responsibilities to the unsheltered and to radically rethink how we address the homelessness crisis,” said Daniel Conway, a policy advisor with the LA Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of nonprofits, service providers, small business owners, and Downtown LA residents suing the city and county over their response to the homeless crisis. “All parties should embrace this opportunity to house thousands of our most needy neighbors at a time when they have never been more at risk.”

Once the city and county meet all of the requirements in the preliminary injunction, they will be able to enforce anti-camping laws around the freeway.

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters that he did not view the preliminary injunction as an “order” and said “we hope... we can come to a common agreement.”

Since then, the city and county nearly came to an agreement over how to handle the freeway encampments. But the deal fell apart at the last minute as they squabbled over who would pay for the shelters.

In court filings, the city said it was ready to commit to creating 6,100 new “shelter opportunities” in the next 10 months—if it received “appropriate levels” of funding from the county. But the judge noted that the number included 2,200 hotel and motel rooms already contracted under the state’s Project Roomkey, as well as 1,000 shelter beds that were set up in recreation centers at the start of the pandemic.

In the updated injunction issued today, the judge reminded city county leaders that money for homeless services is ultimately not their property, because it comes from local taxpayers, the state, and federal government.

“The disagreement between the city and county over the relatively minor costs of this pilot program does not bode well for the future as the program is scaled up across the city and county,” Carter wrote. “It is regrettable that this ongoing endeavor to develop humane and sustainable responses to the challenges of homelessness is beleaguered by a legacy of bureaucratic entanglement and gridlock.”

In 2018, Carter issued a similar ruling in Orange County when he ordered officials to immediately house 1,000 living in tent camps in the Santa Ana River. As a result, Orange County cities committed to opening enough shelters to house all the camp residents.

One detail that’s not made clear in the preliminary injunction is where exactly the unhoused residents will go. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the city of LA has turned recreation centers into emergency shelters, which are currently housing 988 people, but cannot add more capacity due to social distancing guidance. The city is also negotiating leases with hotels and motels with a goal of housing 15,000 at-risk homeless residents, but currently only 1,850 rooms are filled.

For decades, Los Angeles has failed to provide enough shelter to house people living on the streets and in their cars. In 2017, a United Nations official who toured Skid Row called LA’s homelessness crisis a “tragic indictment of community and government policies.”

Complying with the preliminary injunction would require a massive undertaking, mostly because Los Angeles County is so large and is traversed by so many freeways. Los Angeles is home to an estimated 974 miles of state and federal freeways traveling through the 4,751 square-mile county. Last year, a point-in-time survey counted 58,936 homeless residents, 44,214 of whom were unsheltered.

The city and county must give reports to the judge on their plans for establishing shelters and clearing the freeway areas, and the judge has threatened to advance the deadline if they don’t “demonstrate satisfactory progress.” The first is due June 12.