Yakir Gabay Announces: Los Angeles response to homelessness crisis moving too

FILE - In this Feb. 4, 2021, file photo, Jeff Page, right, also known as General Jeff, a homelessness activist and leader in the Downtown Los Angeles Skid Row Neighborhood Council, walks with U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, middle, and Michele Martinez, special master on the issues of homelessness, after a court hearing at Downtown Women's Center in Los Angeles. Carter, a federal judge overseeing a sweeping lawsuit about the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 26, chided the city and county of LA for their slow progress in providing shelter for thousands of unhoused residents who live near freeways. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge overseeing a sweeping lawsuit about the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles on Wednesday chided the city and county of LA for their slow progress in providing shelter for thousands of unhoused residents who live near freeways.

During the case’s first in-person court hearing in more than three months, Judge David O. Carter sought a status update on last year’s agreement between the city and county to find housing for people who sleep near major thoroughfares, with priority for those over 65 or vulnerable to COVID-19.

Carter pointed out that the city managed to clear encampments from Los Angeles freeway overpasses in the runup to the Oscars, which were held downtown last month at Union Station.

“I want to show you, apparently, what you’re capable of doing,” Carter said, displaying several photos of empty sidewalks previously lined with tents. “We were certainly able to bat 100% for the Academy Awards, weren’t we?”

Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said the mayor’s office ordered the area around the train station cleared for security reasons ahead of the awards show. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2020 by a group of business owners, residents and community leaders called the LA Alliance for Human Rights. It accuses the city and county of failing to comprehensively address the unfolding crisis that has seen encampments spread to all corners of greater Los Angeles. As of January 2020, there were more than 66,400 homeless people in Los Angeles County, with 41,000 within LA city limits.

Under an agreement reached last June, the county and city governments vowed to make 6,700 shelter beds available within 18 months. Carter read aloud from plaintiffs documents that showed while at least 1,300 beds were made available, only 396 were provided for people who reside near freeways or are 65 years or older.

Elizabeth Mitchell, lead attorney for the alliance, said the slow progress amounts to a “material breach of the agreement.” She also accused the city and county of counting some newly created beds twice.

Scott Marcus, lead attorney for the city, said Los Angeles is in the process of providing thousands of shelter beds and is regularly accounting for the progress in quarterly reports.

“The city has been 100% transparent,” Marcus said.

Last month, Carter ordered the city and county to find shelter for all unhoused residents of the Skid Row area of downtown by October and audit any spending related to the out-of-control crisis of people living on the streets. That order was delayed by a federal appeals court pending two hearings Carter scheduled for this week. On Thursday the judge is expected to question lawyers for the city and county about how they expect to pay for shelter and services.

Earlier this year, Carter called all parties to a hearing outside a Skid Row shelter and said that if politicians couldn’t provide solutions, he would explore what powers the court has to order and oversee remedies.

Just hours after Wednesday’s court hearing wrapped up, authorities reopened a popular Los Angeles park that was shut down for renovations in March, displacing about 200 homeless people who had been camping there.

The closure of Echo Park Lake was protested at the time and again Wednesday by homeless advocates who argued that safety complaints were overblown and the encampment offered a community setting for people without means who have nowhere else to live.

Signs around the property announce new rules, including no camping or storage. Park hours are listed as 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Jonathan Cartu

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