LA Won't Fight Lawsuit Limiting Encampment Sweeps On Skid Row

Tents lined on San Pedro Street, in Skid Row, Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

The Los Angeles City Council voted 10-2 Wednesday in favor of settling a pending federal lawsuit filed by Skid Row residents. That suit, which accuses the city of unconstitutionally seizing and destroying their personal belongings, led to a temporary restraining order that has greatly restricted efforts to sweep area encampments for nearly three years.

The exact conditions of the settlement are not yet public, but they will likely codify strict limits on items that can be seized off the street in Skid Row.

The decision followed a series of raucous public meetings that pitted Skid Row anti-poverty advocates pushing for the city to settle the case against downtown business and redevelopment interests who wanted Los Angeles to litigate the case in court.

At City Hall on Wednesday, nearly two dozen people on both sides delivered impassioned testimony as to why L.A. should or shouldn't settle the case. After public comment, the city council recessed to closed session to discuss the matter.

Most everyone had left when council chambers re-opened to the public three hours later. During closed session, a steady stream of people in suits and carrying briefcases passed in and out of council chambers with of varying degrees of stressed or anxious expressions.

A QUESTION OF RIGHTS

The central tension is how Los Angeles can balance the constitutional rights of homeless people with health and safety concerns in the public spaces where homeless people often live.

The court case Los Angeles voted to settle on Wednesday, Mitchell v. Los Angeles, alleges the City of Los Angeles violated the fourth and 14th amendment rights of homeless residents by confiscating and destroying their property without notice, or a method for appeal.

One of the plaintiffs, Carl Mitchell, claims the city confiscated and destroyed his possessions, following his arrest for allegedly stealing a shopping cart. He says he was released from police custody 18 hours later on a 40 degree winter night without his blankets, medication, and identifying documents. According to court documents, Mitchell slept that night on the sidewalk beneath a single blanket he found on the street, with no way to keep warm.

A month after the case was filed, a federal judge issued a restraining order against Los Angeles that barred the city from seizing property on Skid Row unless the city could show it was abandoned, was contraband, or threatened public health.

Judge James Otero wrote in his April 2016 order: "To put it bluntly, Plaintiffs may not survive without some of the essential property that has been confiscated."

SETTLEMENT TERMS

The case is currently scheduled to go to trial in June.

Final settlement terms will have to be approved by the city council at a date yet-to-be-determined.

Steve Diaz, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a plaintiff in the case, said, "This is not about anything besides constitutional rights, and the right to property," said "What the [proposed] settlement does is make sure homeless residents of Skid Row are given ample notice of when a street cleanup happens to ensure they are able to move their personal belongings."

"Encampments do not come because people have constitutional rights. Encampments come because of the lack of housing, and the lack of affordability that exists in Los Angeles," he concluded.

But opponents say the proposed settlement would simply lead to deteriorating conditions.

"People have the right to their personal property, their clothing, their medications, their medical equipment, their documents, anything that will help them move forward in their lives. That's very different than unfettered amounts of debris that are causing unhealthy situations for people on the streets," said John Maceri, CEO of homeless services organization The People Concern.

Maceri, who opposed a settlement, added that having a different standard for property left on the street in Skid Row would complicate Los Angeles' ability to do encampment cleanups in other parts of the city.

Having different standards in different parts of the city is an invitation for more legal challenge.