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9th Circuit Court Freezes Judge Carter’s Skid Row Homelessness Order Until June 15

A homeless man sits on the sidewalk next to a shopping cart filled with his belongings. He has a pained expression, and bends forward, facing his lap.
A homeless man sits beside his belongings on the streets in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles.
AFP via Getty Images)
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The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday paused a sweeping order by U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter that would require the city and county of Los Angeles to offer shelter to everyone on Skid Row by the fall.

The reprieve is only temporary: a three-judge panel issued a stay in the district court judge’s preliminary injunction until June 15, while a hearing in the case overseen by Carter proceeds on May 27. “[T]hese further proceedings may impact whether a stay pending appeal is necessary or justified,” the judges noted. The 9th Circuit also requested additional briefings from L.A. County and the city to be submitted by June 3.

Judge Carter is overseeing a March 2020 lawsuit brought by downtown business owners and residents who claim local government has botched its response to homelessness and misspent funding meant to get people off the street.

Carter previously supervised a major case in Orange County that has forced more than 20 cities to step up shelter and services for homeless residents.

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What’s Happened So Far In The Los Angeles Case?

In his sprawling, 110-page preliminary injunction from April 20, Carter ordered that $1 billion in homelessness funding be placed in escrow, responding to promises in Mayor Garcetti’s proposed city budget for fiscal year 2021-2022 — and ordered a halt to city-owned land sales and transfers. He also demanded that the city and county offer shelter or housing to unaccompanied women and children living on Skid Row within three months, and all residents by Oct. 18.

Shortly after the preliminary injunction was filed, Los Angeles officials moved to resist Carter’s interference, quickly asking for a stay of the order and appealing the case to the 9th Circuit. Carter responded by modifying his order, giving the city and county 60 days to detail the $1 billion plan, including funding sources and goals for the number of people who will be housed. He indefinitely stayed the section of the order related to land sales and transfers.

At the same time, Carter was scathing in his assessment of city and county leadership, calling on Garcetti and Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis to come to the table to hammer out a settlement.

“Monetary commitments alone do not fulfill the parties’ obligations to their constituents,” Carter wrote in the April 25 filing. “As action and accountability continue to stagnate, the homeless population and number of deaths increase.”

L.A. County had previously asked to be dropped as a defendant from the lawsuit, arguing Carter was overstepping his judicial authority by interfering with how elected leaders spend taxpayer dollars. That motion to dismiss was denied earlier this week.

What’s At Stake?

Every Angeleno can see the tragedy of the humanitarian crisis unfolding on our streets on a daily basis: more than 66,000 people were experiencing homelessness in L.A. County in 2020, according to the last official count.

Carter pays special attention in his preliminary injunction to the history of structural racism in housing, criminal justice and employment that has created the current situation, where homelessness affects Blacks at a much higher rate than whites or Latinos.

Many cheered the judge’s order, which laid out in frank language decades of “inaction and inertia” on the part of local government, allowing the dangerous and inhumane conditions faced by tens of thousands living on L.A.’s streets to continue.

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“Virtually every citizen of Los Angeles has borne the impacts of the City and County’s continued failure to meaningfully confront the crisis of homelessness,” Carter wrote. “The time has come to redress these wrongs and finish another measure of our nation’s unfinished work.”

But some observers say, while action to address homelessness is urgently needed, the order could ultimately lead to a forcible clearing of the Skid Row neighborhood, evicting unhoused people who don’t accept interim shelter for a variety of reasons.

On page 109 of the Judge’s order, Carter stipulates that “After adequate shelter is offered, the Court will let stand any constitutional ordinance consistent with the holdings of Boise and Mitchell.” With that footnote, the judge is referencing a landmark federal court ruling and a settlement by the city of L.A. that governs how municipalities can police sleeping on the sidewalk. The Boise decision, specifically, says ticketing or arresting homeless people sleeping outside — “when no alternative shelter is available to them” — violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment in the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.

Homeless advocates fear Judge Carter’s injunction will amount to a temporary band-aid that gives the green light to a crackdown on unhoused residents of Skid Row. If the offer of interim shelter beds, far-flung across the city, is deemed “adequate,” that may allow ticketing and arrests for camping outdoors to resume.

Matthew Umhofer, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a group called The LA Alliance for Human Rights, said he was frustrated by that interpretation, which he said focused on a “single footnote” in the order. “It displays failure to read the judge’s order,” which seeks to change a status quo that all parties find unacceptable, Umhofer said. “Our goal all along has been to find a way to offer shelter and housing at the level that we need to, so that there doesn't need to be these enforcement issues — that there is available shelter and housing, mental health services, drug addiction treatment services,” Umhofer said.

“If we do that right,” he added, “then enforcement is going to be a very small issue in this effort.”

An attorney representing longtime advocates for unhoused residents of Skid Row disagrees. The L.A. Alliance lawsuit “is about forcing the City to move away from real solutions to the homelessness crisis and towards more investment in emergency shelters and criminalization,” said Shayla Myers. Her clients, L.A. Community Action Network and Los Angeles Catholic Workers, are parties who intervened in the lawsuit. “Offers of emergency shelters and enforcement of anti-camping ordinances are part of this City’s legacy of racism and inequality, they aren’t a solution to it.”

On Thursday, an attorney representing L.A. County applauded the 9th Circuit’s decision to stay the injunction, calling the move “highly unusual.”

“We look forward to a full briefing on the merits and, we hope, a ruling by the Ninth Circuit overturning the preliminary injunction,” said Skip Miller of the Miller Barondess law firm, which is representing the county in the case. “[Carter’s order is] contrary to law and, more importantly, it would disrupt the County’s on-going regional efforts with its partners to address this humanitarian crisis.”