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Frustrated Federal Judge Confronts LA Officials About Inaction On Homelessness Crisis

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A cyclist rides past a Skid Row sign in Los Angeles earlier this week. U.S. District Judge David Carter has likened the homelessness crisis here to "a significant natural disaster in Southern California with no end in sight." (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)
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An unhappy U.S. District Judge David Carter called elected officials from the city and county of Los Angeles to a hearing Thursday morning at the Downtown Women's Center on Skid Row.

Carter is overseeing a March 2020 lawsuit by a coalition of downtown business and homeowners, which argues that conditions on L.A.'s streets are inhumane, and tax money spent on homeless response has been wasted.

Local leaders and homeless advocates testified a few feet away from Skid Row encampments, and the hearing was broadcast over a sound system so people on the street could listen and react. Occasional cheers or declarations such as "I love you, Judge!" could be heard throughout the official proceedings.

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Because of the disproportionate impact on people of color, Carter said, he likened the challenge of the homelessness crisis to the Supreme Court's mandate to enforce equity after the landmark 1954 school desegregation ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education. He later showed the hearing room photos he had taken of shivering, rain-soaked women he and City Councilmember Kevin de Léon had tried to find shelter for during a recent rainstorm.

WHAT WAS PROMISED

Last June, the city and county agreed to add 6,000 shelter beds, a compromise response to a May order from Carter to relocate up to 7,000 people living near freeway overpasses and on/off ramps. But Carter is unhappy with the progress, especially after rainy days that threatened the health and safety of people on the street.

"I ask for you to show 'just cause' why the court should not begin deploying any and all remedies" to solve the crisis, Carter said in opening remarks. "What are the outer limits of the court's structural remedy power?"

From L.A. County, Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger were in attendance. De Léon and his fellow L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin were also present as the hearing got underway. Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the county's Department of Mental Health sat in the back. Judge Carter also welcomed Pete White of L.A. Community Action Network and Pastor Stephen Cue Jn-Marie of the Church Without Walls to the hearing tent.

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U.S. District Court Judge David Carter called L.A. County and City leaders to a hearing on Skid Row on Thursday, February 4, 2021. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

To comply with CDC guidelines, only 18 people were allowed inside, while a spillover crowd listened from the Women's Center parking lot.

"I don't believe that a consent decree is necessary -- yet," said de Léon, but added that it may be the only recourse if the problem persists.

A consent decree is an order from a judge that must be followed -- it is often used to settle cases against government entities.

"I fully realize that this crisis is bigger than the city of Los Angeles. It is a humanitarian crisis of previously unimaginable proportions," de Léon said. "And every level of government must treat it as such."

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Yesterday, his colleague on the city council, Mike Bonin, called for the county and city to enter a consent decree to confront the homelessness crisis.

"We need to admit that the City and the County are structurally incapable of responding with appropriate urgency and vigor to our homelessness crisis, and must enter into a judicial consent decree under the supervision of [Judge Carter]." Bonin said in an op-ed posted on Medium.

At the hearing, Bonin likened the situation to large, seemingly intractable problems in L.A.'s history that have prompted consent decrees: sewage spilling into Santa Monica Bay; or the rampant corruption uncovered in the LAPD's Rampart scandal.

"Los Angeles over the past few decades has often needed a consent decree to get its butt kicked into what needs to be done," Bonin told Carter.

WHAT'S BEEN TRIED

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Supervisor Solis described the various county efforts to house people, including a 232-unit complex near the county jail on the edge of downtown that has been completed in under five months.

But pushback from neighbors and a "not in my backyard" attitude continues to be an obstacle in some cases, Solis admitted.

"People are [asking], 'How dare you place a facility within 5, 10 minutes of high rise apartment buildings, when we're trying to attract tenants?'" Solis said.

"I hope we can avoid going into a consent decree," Solis added. "Because I do believe there are opportunities."

Judge Carter responded: "I understand that this 'consent decree' is a big word. This is the beginning of a process...to determine whether I have those powers or not."

GARCETTI? GARCETTI?

The tone of the hearing became more contentious when Carter called on Mayor Eric Garcetti to testify. Garcetti announced Wednesday that he did not plan to attend the hearing, but pledged to accelerate efforts to house people in hotels and motel rooms through the Project Roomkey program, thanks to a commitment by the Biden Administration that it will reimburse temporary living facilities at 100% through FEMA.

There was a pause in the tent after Carter asked for Garcetti. After a moment, he asked members of the mayor's staff to come forward.

Carter grilled the city's deputy mayor for homeless initiatives, Jose "Che" Ramirez, and Garcetti deputy chief of staff Matt Szabo about statistics, asking if there are more people experiencing homelessness today than when the June settlement was struck.

After some back-and-forth, Ramirez affirmed the problem has gotten worse in the intervening months, but emphasized that the city has "8,200 interventions in the pipeline."

Carter interjected: "I believe you but I don't trust you."

WHAT L.A. CITY HAS DONE

Since the lawsuit was filed last March, the city has increased services, said Meg Barclay, the city's Homeless Coordinator. The changes include expanding a hygiene and laundry center for Skid Row residents; opening the first "A Bridge Home" shelter on Skid Row, offering 120 beds; and bringing a mobile pitstop program with toilets to 10 locations citywide.

Citing the uptick in deaths during the pandemic, Carter questioned whether Angelenos were seeing the results of the city's work on the streets. There have been 1,383 deaths of homeless people in L.A. County in 2020, up 32% from the previous year. This year has gotten off to a bleak start, with 165 deaths in January alone.

"Have you gone out and spoken to community leaders here?" Carter asked Barclay.

"Not recently, no," she answered.

"Would you be willing to? Would you walk the streets with them?" Carter persisted.

"Of course," she responded, with emotion audible in her voice.

'HOMELESSNESS KILLS'

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Pastor Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie with the Church Without Walls on Skid Row (right) testifies at a hearing presided over by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter on February 4, 2021. (Courtesy of Pete White, L.A. Community Action Network)

"Homelessness kills," said Monique Noel with the Downtown Women's Action Coalition. She spoke by phone, pointing out that no Black women had been asked to testify at the hearing, despite their overrepresentation in the homeless population.

"Women are dying because they're living on the streets, and women's issues are largely excluded from the conversation," Noel added.

Elizabeth Mitchell with the L.A. Alliance For Human Rights, the plaintiffs in the case, excoriated the city and county for glossing over the problem with "platitudes" and taking small steps to combat the problem.

"Fifty people here, a hundred people there is good, but it's not going to get us where we need to go," Mitchell said. She implored Carter to "immediately provide roofs over peoples' heads" by directing the city to reallocate roughly $300 million from HHH, the bond measure approved by voters in 2016, to construct temporary shelters.

But community organizers and homeless advocates pushed back, saying temporary shelters were a quick-fix that strand homeless people in limbo without a path to permanent housing.

"People who are in emergency interim housing in Los Angeles are languishing," said attorney Shayla Myers with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

She said temporary shelters only sweep the problem under the rug, "moving the structural and racial inequalities that have created our housing crisis into the shadows."

Pastor Cue agreed: "A shelter is a downgrade from a housing project."

"We don't have time to wait on a solution," he added. "That is why we support the consent decree -- because we have been waiting for a long time, and nothing has happened of significance."

Carter continued to probe county and city officials, trying to identify the root of why homelessness continues to rise in Los Angeles, and the cause of years of institutional roadblocks, public and private inertia and passing of blame by elected leaders.

"I get concerned that you've got the desire, but you don't have the power," he told L.A. Homeless Services Authority's Heidi Marsden. "Maybe you should have a lot more power. Or maybe [your organization] shouldn't exist. I just don't know."

"Hopefully the city and the county will proceed and resolve this with the good citizens here," Carter concluded, promising further inquiries and hearings. "If not, we're going to explore the court's equitable powers."

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