LA County Attempts to Regulate Homelessness
In 2018, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) reported that there are an estimated 129,972 homeless people in California. Of that number, roughly 52,765 resided in Los Angeles County, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). In the past year since these findings, there has been a 12 percent increase of homeless people in LA, up to nearly 59,000.
In order to properly comprehend the current steps being taken to combat homelessness, one must understand a brief timeline of the history of homelessness in Los Angeles. For geographic context, California is ruled by the same Court of Appeals as Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and twelve other districts, under the title “Ninth Circuit.” According to a 2018 Forbes report, of the top 10 U.S. cities experiencing the highest homeless populations, seven cities fell within the Ninth Circuit – four of which were in California (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose/Santa Clara, and San Francisco).
In 2007, the Jones v. Los Angeles case dealt with LAMC 41.18, a law which states that “no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” The case was settled by withholding enforcement of that particular law until 1,250 homeless housing units had been built (at least half of which were to be near Skid Row).
Meanwhile, across the Ninth Circuit, citizens were arguing against laws that they believed discriminated against homeless people. In late 2018, a case known as Martin v. Boise in Idaho once again addressed laws similar to LAMC 41.18, this time setting a standard to be implemented across the Ninth Circuit. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prosecute homeless people for sleeping on the streets when they do not have anywhere to relocate, claiming that this act would violate their 8th Amendment rights that prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. In other words, the ruling forbid municipalities from criminalizing any form of public camping unless the local government could offer every unhoused person an acceptable form of shelter.
By this point, Los Angeles had met the Jones settlement’s obligations to create 1,250 homeless housing units. However, the Martin verdict quickly re-implemented similar housing laws and procedures. In Southern California, most cities lack enough shelter beds to adequately house the growing population of homeless people; therefore, with this ruling in place, some Los Angeles Council Members felt as though their hands were tied.
As a result, nearly a year later, in late August of 2019, the Los Angeles Homelessness and Poverty Committee proposed an amendment to LAMC 41.18d, in an effort to maintain the right to address camping in public places. These revisions would implement several restrictions as to where people cannot sit, lie or sleep, including within 500 feet of a park and within 500 feet of a homeless shelter that has been opened since January 2018. The proposed law would also make it illegal to follow or speak to a person in a manner that could cause them to fear for their safety or loss of property, or to intimidate a person into giving money.
According to Mitch O’Farrell, who is Councilmember and acting Chair of the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, the Martin decision unrightfully limits the local government’s ability to maintain the safety of both homeless and non-homeless Los Angeles residents. O’Farrell is on the Board for the 13th district, which oversees Echo Park, Hollywood, Silverlake, Koreatown, and other surrounding cities, and he drafted the LAMC 41.48d amendment.
“The reality is we have sensitive areas to consider and as city leaders we must strike the balance between the needs of those experiencing homelessness and keeping our public spaces safe and accessible,” said O’Farrell to the Los Angeles Times.
The most recent move made by local government was by the LA County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 17. The Board filed a formal request known as an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, asking the court to overturn the ruling of Martin v. Boise.
“Martin places an enormous burden on the County,” said the Sept. 18 motion created by supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn. “Local governments need to have the ability to regulate public camping to protect everyone, especially the most vulnerable and in need. Unregulated encampments can create a public health crisis to those inside and outside those encampments.”
On the opposition side, different organizations and advocacy groups have cited the proposed laws as inhumane and misdirected, seemingly serving the interests of the local governments more than the needs of the homeless. Many advocates agree with the opposition in terms of the need for more housing infrastructure; however, advocates like Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) feel that the approach to this issue is two-fold.
"Let's keep building, and do what we need ever we need to do to keep people inside of housing so we don't increase the homeless ranks," said White. "But let's also make sure we provide public health infrastructure for those who are forced to live on the streets."