Will LA’s crackdown on homeless encampments criminalize poverty?

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Homeless encampments line the Venice Beach boardwalk, June 29, 2021. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Today the Los Angeles City Council approved a sweeping measure to restrict homeless encampments around the city. The new rules target people who sit, sleep and store their belongings near building entrances, freeway undrepasses, parks, homeless shelters, day care centers and other public facilities. 

That could impact up to tens of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in LA who have sought refuge in tents and sidewalk encampments. 

But this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The new ordinance leaves room for case-by-case decisions that will likely lead to different enforcement in different council districts. It also means that council members with differing opinions and competing interests will wield some power over how to police certain areas of their district. 

Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor, said he plans to enforce the new rules to their fullest and would like to see an even more stringent ordinance. Ideally, “If you are offered shelter, you must either move in, move along, or face a consequence,” he said.
Councilmember Mike Bonin voted against the measure. He said that by and large, the problem is that people living on sidewalks have nowhere to go. 

“People want housing. They do not want warehousing, they don't want shelter. They want housing. There are far more people who want housing than sufficient resources,” said Bonin.

The new rules must be approved by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti within 10 days, and they’re likely to take effect before the end of summer, according to city officials.

What exactly is unlawful under this new ordinance? 

Sitting, sleeping, lying or storing personal property if you are:

-Obstructing sidewalks, streets or right-of-ways

-Within 10 feet of an operational driveway or loading dock

-Within two feet of a fire hydrant

The City Council voted to put the same restrictions on a case-by-case basis near certain types of locations. For the following types of facilities, council members need to identify particular places where they want to enact the rules. Then they must get approval from their colleagues and give two weeks notice to unhoused people camped nearby before enforcing the rules at:

-Day cares

-Schools

-Public parks

-Libraries

-Freeway ramps and underpasses

-Homeless shelters

How will the ordinance be enforced? 

That’s still unclear. City officials who support the ordinance say that most violations will be treated as infractions with possible fines, versus more serious misdemeanors. The ordinance itself stipulates that a “street engagement strategy” on homelessness will be deployed across the city along with the new rules, involving trained professionals who can offer unhoused people shelter. A separate report on exactly what that strategy entails will work its way to the City Council in the coming weeks. Typically LAPD enforces these types of ordinances, with a fair amount of discretion on when to crack down. Different City Council offices are also likely to take different approaches on the types and number of locations to crack down on.

Didn’t something like this already pass? 

Yes, the council voted 13-2 to pass this ordinance on July 1. This vote was a procedural requirement called a “second consideration.”

Who voted “yes” on this ordinance and why? 

Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield, Gil Cedillo, Paul Koretz, Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, Paul Krekorian, Mitch O’Farrell, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Joe Buscaino, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, John Lee, Curren Price and Monica Rodriguez. 

Supporters say that the ordinance balances the constitutional rights of the unhoused with the need for accessible and clean public spaces.

Who voted “no” on this ordinance and why? 

Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman. They say that restricting camping in outdoor spaces without adequate indoor alternatives will only criminalize poverty. According to Bonin, the City of LA only has enough shelter beds to accommodate 39% of its unhoused population.

What do advocates on each side say?

“Families should be able to safely walk down any street in this city and not have to move into the roadway,” said Stuart Waldman, who heads the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a business group. “The disabled should not be blocked. Our parks should be clean and usable for recreation. And businesses should not have their storefronts blocked by trash and other belongings. This crisis has gone too far and too long and must be fixed.”

Critics like Ricci Sergienko told the council before today’s vote: “You guys all want to criminalize homelessness in Los Angeles, basically saying that poor people just existing will be criminalized. This law unfairly paints unhoused people as a threat to children and the public. The lack of appropriate housing is the real threat to public safety.”

Why is the City Council focusing on these rules now? 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the city mostly stopped doing cleanups of homeless encampments, in line with advice from the Centers for Disease Control. That led to larger camps across the city and complaints from housed constituents. Those tensions came to a head in the case of Echo Park Lake and more recently near the Venice boardwalk

With COVID-19 restrictions largely lifted (though the Delta variant is now walking that back), council members are trying to come up with new rules on street camping. Past rules had been deemed legally unenforceable in courts.

Is there enough housing to accommodate people who live on city streets?

No. A count conducted in January and published last week by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) found that the city has 24,689 units of permanent supportive housing available to people experiencing homelessness. While that only accounts for the most deeply subsidized form of affordable housing, reserved for people with certain disabilities, LAHSA officials say that LA County as a whole is short about 500,000 cheap apartments compared to the need. The last homeless count found about 41,000 people living on the city’s streets and in its shelters.

Credits

Reporter:

Anna Scott