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Judge's Ruling In LA County Homeless Case Could Have Big Impact On Skid Row, For Better Or Worse

A group of Downtown LA property owners, business owners and other stakeholders in March 2020 joined together under the name L.A. Alliance for Human Rights and sued the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County in federal court to force both entities to address the proliferation of homeless encampments throughout the city and county and offer shelter of some kind to the unhoused population.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter granted a preliminary injunction that would, among other things, require the city to offer shelter options to residents of Skid Row — a downtown neighborhood long synonymous with homelessness and entrenched poverty — by the end of October and compel the city and county to perform audits of local, state and federal funds aimed at addressing homelessness.

The alliance behind the lawsuit as well as Skid Row-based nonprofit housing developers and anti-poverty activists all saw an opportunity to meaningfully address the homelessness crisis in elements of the judge’s sweeping order. But the potential side effects and unintended consequences of carrying out the order also weighed heavily on those with track records of engaging with the Skid Row community, unhoused and housed alike.

People sleeping in the Second Street tunnel in Downtown Los Angeles.

“There are so many more questions than answers,” said Jet Doye, vice president of advancement at Skid Row Housing Trust, which develops the type of housing with services that is the first stop for many formerly homeless people. Doye said she agreed with the plaintiffs and the judge that it is unacceptable to have people suffering and dying on the streets. But Doye expressed concerns about what she felt was a false binary of either funding permanent housing solutions to homelessness or creating temporary shelters that the order implied.

In his initial order, Carter critiqued the emphasis of local governments on creating permanent housing, highlighting the high per-unit costs of these projects and instances of developer abuse of the systems that fund them. This week, in response to requests for stays to the injunction from the city and county, Carter clarified that increasing the availability of long-term housing was critical and that “the Court thus welcomes any effort to provide temporary relief while simultaneously building abundant and sustainable long-term housing.” But the details of how to strike that balance still remain unclear to many providers like Doye.

The requirement to offer shelter to Skid Row residents in just a few months also raised the question of how the process would work and where people would go. Doye drew the comparison to the city’s clearing of an encampment at Echo Park Lake in March.

“It couldn’t have gone worse than it did,” Doye said. “The people in that encampment were rehoused in not the community of their choice. The engagement process broke down. They were primarily housed in Project Roomkey sites that are set to close in September. Where do they go then?”

The Echo Park Lake encampment had about 200 people living in it, Doye noted. Skid Row has over 2,000 estimated unhoused people on the streets.

Of the 17 members of the alliance that were named in the original complaint, eight are downtown property owners or business owners or operators in the area. The lawsuit details increased expenses these alliance members faced as a result of having to pay for more security or upkeep and repairs to their properties as a result, they claimed, of the encampments that are increasing around their buildings. Some owners alleged that because of the encampments, they were no longer able to rent their buildings or keep tenants in them.

Though the 92-page complaint also addressed the humanitarian and public health crisis of having tens of thousands of people unhoused, among some homeless advocates and activists there is deep skepticism that the alliance and its members want anything more than to not have to deal with the blight of encampments and their effects on property values.

Echo Park Lake

Pete White said his concern was that the methods of addressing the homelessness crisis laid out in the order were really just ways to put unhoused people “out of sight, out of mind, which is exactly what the business community wants.”

White, the executive director of the Skid Row-based Los Angeles Community Action Network, was heartened to see that within Carter’s 110-page order there was practically a “dissertation” on the racist roots of LA’s homelessness crisis, which affects Black Angelenos disproportionally, including the practice of redlining and the use of racially restrictive covenants to dictate where Black and non-White people could live or buy homes. The county’s own homelessness services authority published a report in 2020 and in 2018 with similar findings.

But White was not convinced that the remedies proposed by Carter in the injunction would provide a pathway to real permanent housing for people in Skid Row and beyond.

“We are still here for house keys, not handcuffs,” White said, invoking a phrase that refers to the desire for the provision of permanent housing for homeless people and a rejection of criminalization of that population. “But we cannot be fooled into believing that the building of a temporary structure leaves us anywhere closer to houseless folks becoming housed.”

Matthew Umhofer, an attorney representing the L.A. Alliance group, said that his group’s view is that by offering shelter and engaging in meaningful outreach, any kind of police enforcement would be unnecessary. “And that’s our goal in this case,” Umhofer said.

The other goal, Umhofer said, was to address the city and county policies that have created the homelessness crisis, including the racist history of housing policies outlined in the order, and to get them on a path to undoing the damage. The city declined to comment for this story and a county representative did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

“I think the city and the county have a lot to lose by fighting this,” Umhofer said.

The city and county have appealed Carter’s decision in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.