Friday, March 1

Los Angeles agrees to settle homelessness lawsuit

Los Angeles leaders announced Friday a lawsuit settlement agreement that commits the city to sheltering or housing thousands of homeless people within five years, but leaves unclear how significantly it will expand efforts already underway.

The settlement also draws a sharp distinction between the city’s responsibilities and those of Los Angeles County, which operates the local public health system. The county is also part of the lawsuit but did not settle.

“The city has committed to building a minimum of 14,000 beds and has over 13,000 beds in the process already,” City Council President Nury Martinez told a City Hall press conference.

The city estimated that 14,000 to 16,000 units would cost $2.4 billion to $3 billion.

The lawsuit was brought in 2020 by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition that includes businesses, residents, landlords, homeless people and others who allege that inaction by the city and county has created a dangerous environment.

The homeless population was once largely confined to downtown LA’s notorious Skid Row, but encampments have spread widely, including within sight of City Hall.

Elizabeth Mitchell, attorney for the alliance, said the settlement requires the city to provide shelter on a “deadline-driven, judicially enforced” schedule, helps get people off unhealthy and unsafe streets, and returns public spaces to their intended uses.

“But what the settlement does not do … is provide the necessary services and treatment to address this issue holistically,” Mitchell said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti characterized homelessness as a “fire that is raging across Los Angeles” and said it is time to extinguish it. He hailed the settlement as “an important infusion of momentum.”

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The city’s current housing commitment will be based on the 2022 point-in-time count of homeless people, which is still underway. Last year’s count was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of January 2020, there were more than 66,400 homeless people in Los Angeles County, with 41,000 within LA city limits.

Under the agreement, the city would create shelter or housing for 60% of homeless people in the city who do not have a serious mental illness, substance abuse disorder or chronic physical illness.

The city, which does not have its own health department, contends the county is obligated to provide services and housing for people with those problems but is failing.

“What we need to do is call on the county to step up and do their part,” Martinez said.

Los Angeles County responded in a statement that repeated its assertion that the settlement only applies to LA’s Skid Row.

“As for the County, we remain steadfast in our focus on addressing homelessness as a regional crisis affecting people and communities in all of our 88 cities as well as in the unincorporated areas,” it said.

The Los Angeles Community Action Network, an advocacy group for the homeless that was also a party in the case, said it was excluded from negotiations and condemned the settlement as a back room deal.

“This settlement may be trumpeted as a win by Skid Row property owners and politicians who are looking no further than the next election, but it’s the same failed approach the city has been investing in for decades, and it’s a real loss for everyone else, ” the group said in a statement.

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In its statement, Los Angeles County said it has housed more than 75,000 people since voters passed a sales tax increase in 2017 and over the past three years has ramped up shelter capacity by 60%.

It added that a record $1 billion will be spent this year on programs to house even more people while providing mental health and other services.

“The (county) Board of Supervisors is fully committed to continuing and expanding this massive mobilization to create lasting solutions to this humanitarian crisis,” it said.

The alliance said the settlement applies to all of Los Angeles, not just Skid Row, and the group will continue to pursue its suit against the county.

The settlement agreement requires the approval of US District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing the case.

Last year, Carter issued an order that would have required the city and county to offer shelter to all unhoused people on Skid Row within six months.

An appeals court struck down the order on grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring most claims. The alliance then filed an amended lawsuit.

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