LA's Rules About Where Homeless People Are Allowed To Sit And Sleep Could Get Even More Complicated

A makeshift shelter in front of church on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

The Los Angeles City Council's homelessness and poverty committee on Wednesday recommended repealing a controversial ordinance prohibiting homeless people from sitting or sleeping on sidewalks. The committee wants city council to replace the law with one that is more narrowly tailored, and compliant with a recent federal court decision.

The ordinance, Municipal Code (L.A.M.C.) section 41.18 — known in homeless advocacy circles as the "sit-lie" law — makes it a criminal offense to sit, lie, or sleep on a public sidewalk anywhere in the city. The law was the subject of a major lawsuit, Jones v. Los Angeles, which was settled in 2007. Under the settlement with the ACLU, the city can only enforce the law under limited circumstances.

The proposed replacement law lays out a lengthy list of circumstances and conditions under which occupying a sidewalk would be banned. These include within 500 feet of parks and schools and within 10 feet of a driveway or building entrance.

Committee members and the city attorney's office are recommending the change in order to align L.A.'s municipal code with a 2018 federal court ruling that limits how cities can enforce anti-camping and anti-loitering laws. In that case, Martin V. Boise, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Boise law that outlawed sleeping in any public space in that city.

In the opinion, Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote: "As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter." The city had no shelter beds available for the plaintiffs in the case.


READ MORE: LA Explained - Homelessness


L.A.M.C. line 41.18(d) is virtually identical to the Boise law struck down by the court. The law states plainly that "No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way."

Any change to L.A.'s current law would have to be passed by the full city council before becoming law.

NOT ENOUGH BEDS IN L.A.

A line of makeshift shelters line a sidewalk in Skid Row. (James Bernal for LAist)

At Wednesday's committee meeting, senior assistant city attorney Valerie Flores gave an oral presentation on the city's 41.18 law and advised changes.

"Historically this section was used to cite or arrest homeless individuals who refused to avail themselves of shelters," said Flores. "But when the homeless population overtook the number of shelter beds, 41.18 fell out of pace."

Though there are more than 27,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the city of Los Angeles at any given time, there are only about 8,100 shelter beds. More than half of those beds are reserved for families with children.

That leaves just over 4,000 beds for single adults, who make up the bulk of the homeless population.

The result is thousands of people living on sidewalks, in shantytowns and tent encampments that have mushroomed into perhaps the most distressing and politically toxic issue in Southern California today.

The city council's Homelessness and Poverty committee recommended 3-0 in favor of rewriting L.A.M.C. 41.18. The list of proposed prohibitions on sitting, sleeping or lying include:

  • Within 10 feet of a driveway or building entrance.
  • Within 500 feet of a park, school or daycare center.
  • Within 500 feet of a homeless shelter or homeless housing that's opened since January 2018.
  • In any way that violates free passage of someone in a wheelchair pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • On bike paths.
  • In or upon any tunnel, bridge or pedestrian subway that is on a city-designated school route.
  • On public land with posted "no trespassing" signs and closing times.
  • On "crowded public sidewalk areas" like those where street vending is outlawed or near large venues.

READ MORE: LA Leaders Pitched Emergency Shelters As Quick And Temporary. Here's The Reality


'SIT, LIE, SPEAK?'

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 or to cause them to "respond immediately with a violent reaction because of the inherent nature of the reasonably perceived harm."

Peggy Lee Kennedy, an advocate for the homeless from Venice who attended Wednesday's meeting, called the proposal "inhumane." She was particularly concerned about the 500-foot rule pertaining to parks, saying it would force homeless people to camp far from public bathrooms.

"If you're living outside, nobody is going to let you use their bathroom. So you have to go to a park. If you can't be within 500 feet of a park, that means you have to go 500 feet to pee or poop."

Homeless encampments in Koreatown, photographed on June 29, 2019. (James Bernal for LAist)

WHERE CAN PEOPLE SLEEP?

The proposed changes do not prohibit sitting or sleeping on sidewalks in residential or commercial areas as long as the spot complies with the other rules.

Homeless advocate Jed Parriott said the rules could lead to ever greater concentrations of homeless encampments.

"This severely limits where you can camp legally, which is going to effectively create containment zones like Skid Row all over the city," Parriot said.

The proposed rule change still faces several hurdles before it's finalized. And it could change. Homelessness committee members instructed the city attorney's office to draft a formal law based on its recommendations. The proposal would then be considered and voted on by the full city council.

Any ordinance drafted by the city attorney's office would then have to be considered for a second time by the committee and full council before becoming law.


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