SF Gate, May 22, 2020
By Robert Jablon
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge on Friday ordered Los Angeles city and county to move thousands of homeless people living near freeways after an agreement on a plan fell through.
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter issued a preliminary injunction requiring the relocation, by Sept. 1, of an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people camping near freeway ramps and overpasses, saying they face a health risk emergency.
Carter ordered a status report on the relocation plan to be ready by June 12, with updates to follow, and warned that he would move up the deadline if he doesn’t see “satisfactory progress.”
“I’m very optimistic and I think all parties can come together,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at an afternoon news briefing.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty historic partnership ... under those broad shoulders of a federal court,” he said. “This finally is a moment where we can see in Los Angeles not just baby steps but I hope bold steps out of homelessness.”
The injunction was issued in a lawsuit filed in March by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, which accused officials in greater Los Angeles of failing to comprehensively address the homelessness crisis.
A 2019 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that there were close to 60,000 homeless people living in LA County — by far the largest single concentration in the state. That included 36,000 within the city limits. Both figures were up more than 10% from the previous year.
The region has been struggling to deal with the growing problem but Carter said those living near freeways are at special risk. They are exposed to pollution, including lead, that can shorten their life expectancy by decades and face a greater danger of being struck by a car or injured during an accident or earthquake, the judge said.
Their camps also block sidewalks, he said.
Last week, Carter gave the city and county until Friday to come up with a plan for providing “humane” housing for the freeway-adjacent campers.
The judge said the city committed to creating 6,100 new shelter beds in the next 10 months but only if the county paid for services such as food, laundry and security. The tentative agreement collapsed this week when L.A. refused to split what the judge called “relatively minor costs.”
“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,” he added.
Under the preliminary injunction, the city and county must provide shelter or alternative housing options, such as government encampments, safe parking sites or hotel and motel rooms. The housing options must have security, showers and other hygiene facilities and enough space to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the judge said.
The county already is renting rooms under Project Roomkey, a state program established during the pandemic to get thousands of homeless most vulnerable to COVID-19 off the streets temporarily. Those rooms are reserved for those 65 and older and those with existing medical conditions.
Other cities already have set up camping sites in response to the coronavirus epidemic. In San Francisco, about 80 tents were set out on a street near City Hall as part of a “safe sleeping village” opened last week. The area between the city’s central library and its Asian Art Museum is fenced off to outsiders, monitored around the clock and provides meals, showers, clean water and trash pickup.
Santa Rosa in Sonoma County welcomed people this week to its first managed encampment with roughly 70 blue tents. Portland, Oregon, has three homeless camps with city-provided sleeping bags and tents, and Maricopa County opened two parking lots to homeless campers in Phoenix.
Carter’s preliminary injunction says the homeless living near freeways must get advance notice before they can be removed and in the meantime, social workers and mental health workers should offer their services. While homeless people can’t be forced into a shelter, the city and county will be allowed to enforce anti-camping laws to relocate them at least 500 feet from freeways.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.