L.A. sets new camping limits in public areas
Backers say rules are a compassionate way
to ensure access. Foes say they criminalize homelessness.
Over the objections of activists, advocacy groups and two of their colleagues, Los Angeles City Council members on Thursday approved a new package of restrictions on encampments near homeless shelters, day-care centers and an array of other public facilities.
With some arguing the measure would further criminalize homelessness and others saying the city took too long to act, council members voted
Backers of the ordinance said it would restore access to public spaces in a way that is compassionate, treating most violations as infractions that can result in fines, not jail time, and limiting the involvement of law enforcement. They warned that their constituents would not continue to support new shelters and or other homeless facilities unless the city shows they have regained control of the sidewalks and other public spaces.
Councilman Bob Blumenfield said he has already faced protests at his Woodland Hills residence after working to open two “tiny home” cabin communities for unhoused residents in his west San Fernando Valley district.
If those facilities become a magnet for encampments, “I’m never going to be able to get another cabin community sited in my district,” he said.
Foes of the ordinance said the city had rushed the anti-camping rules to a vote without working through the details, such as what the outreach strategy would be. Councilwoman Nithya Raman, one of those opponents, said the new law would simply cause homeless people to continue being pushed from place to place.
“To figure out where people can and can’t be homeless, we need to go through a deliberative process. This was not it,” said Raman, who represents Hancock Park, Sherman Oaks and other affluent communities. “This was a quick and hasty process, and it was done behind closed doors.”
Even some who voted in favor sounded pessimistic about the city’s chances of making progress in combatting homelessness.
“This problem at this moment feels hopeless,” said Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who nevertheless cast a “yes” vote.
The council’s lengthy debate reflected the growing frustration inside and outside City Hall over the continued struggle to build housing and shelter for the city’s neediest while also restoring access to some of the city’s public spaces. Some members spoke candidly about their own struggles with housing insecurity, while others described the suffering and death of homeless people in their districts.
Council President Nury Martinez acknowledged that she and her colleagues are under political pressure. She argued that the city’s working-class families have been left out of the debate, drowned out by activists deploying hashtags on Twitter.
“What about the immigrants who come to this country with absolutely nothing, and bust their asses working to lift their families?” she asked. “Why don’t they have a right to a safe park? Why don’t they have a right to a safe library? Why can’t they enjoy a day in their neighborhoods, if they don’t have the money to go to Disneyland or the beach?
“Those are the people that are missing in this conversation,” said Martinez, who represents working-class neighborhoods such as Sun Valley, Arleta and Panorama City.
Thursday’s vote comes as homelessness has metastasized, with growing encampments in Hollywood, Koreatown, South Los Angeles and dozens of other locations. It has become by far the most pressing issue facing the city’s politicians, who are less than a year away from a municipal election.
Homeless advocates have described the city’s response as woefully inadequate, arguing that many of the facilities that have opened don’t meet the needs of the city’s unhoused. Neighborhood groups have voiced frustration about encampment fires and the tents that have filled parks, sidewalks and library entrances. And residents on both sides have voiced alarm at the number of people on the streets mired in poverty, many of them struggling with addiction or mental illness.
Against that backdrop, the city has six council members running for reelection, a seventh running for city controller and an eighth for mayor. Four others are contemplating, or have not ruled out, bids for mayor in the June 2022 election.
Councilman Mike Bonin, who is running for reelection and was recently served with a recall notice over the homelessness issue, said he had faced vitriol over his decision to oppose the new ordinance. But he argued that he cannot support it at a time when the city still lacks the shelter beds to serve 61% of its homeless population.
In an impassioned address, Bonin described his own history as a recovering addict who at one point did not have a home and was sleeping in his car, on friends’ couches and on a few nights, on the beach.
“I cannot describe how demoralizing and dehumanizing and defeating that experience is, when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep,” he said.
Bonin has been joined by a coalition of advocacy groups, who say the measure does nothing to help the city’s estimated 41,000 unhoused residents.
“Instead, it doubles down on the city’s criminalization strategy,” said the coalition, which includes such organizations as Ground Game Los Angeles and Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles.
Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas disputed those arguments, saying he and his colleagues amended the proposal Thursday to ensure that anti-camping violations are treated as infractions that, at worst, would result in fines — not a misdemeanor carrying the threat of jail time.
“It’s a really big deal, because part of the homelessness crisis in the city of Los Angeles is the number of persons who are arrested,” he said. “They ... end up in Men’s Central [jail] and their conditions worsen.”
The anti-camping ordinance cannot go into effect until after council members cast a second vote, which is expected to take place at the end of the month.
Mayor Eric Garcetti supports the ordinance, his spokesperson said. Several business leaders also welcomed the council’s decision, saying they have been contending with theft, fires and other public safety issues that they associate with encampments.
Commercial real estate broker Marty Shelton said at least three fires have broken out at an encampment next to a Hollywood shopping center where he handles leasing arrangements. Two other fires were set in trash cans on the property, he said.
“They’ve burned trash cans and thrown trash cans through the windows of one of my stores,” Shelton told the council.
The mechanics of the new ordinance have raised alarms both among advocates for the unhoused and from those who want a more rapid removal of encampments.
The measure gives the council the power to prohibit sitting, sleeping or storing possessions within 500 feet of “sensitive uses,” such as day -care centers, public and private schools, libraries and parkland. But it also states that enforcement in those areas cannot occur until the council has approved a resolution designating a particular location as a target of enforcement.
As result, decisions on enforcement will depend heavily on the wishes of each council member, said Mike Dickerson, co-founder of the homeless advocacy group Ktown for All. Some will act more aggressively than others in removing encampments, he said.
“It’s just creating an arbitrary patchwork of regulations that are essentially unfollowable,” Dickerson said.
One homeless resident, who stays at a motel in MacArthur Park and goes by the name Adrian, said the ordinance will make life worse for him and other unhoused people. “This law is way too broad and open for abuse,” he said.
The council already uses resolutions to limit the places where oversized vehicles, which frequently serve as homes for L.A. residents, can legally park, said Shayla Myers, staff attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
“Are we opening the doors to years of council meetings where, block by block, the city is going to decrease where unhoused people can reside?” she asked.
Allan Parsons, a Venice resident frustrated by the number of encampments in his neighborhood, said he too believes that enforcement will depend on each council member. But Parsons predicted that Bonin, who represents the area, will simply decline to enforce the council’s latest law.
“This is just rearranging the deck chairs,” he said.