By CHRISTOPHER WEBER, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles is again considering a proposal to greatly restrict where homeless people may camp in public places around the city — rules that opponents say would criminalize homelessness.
The City Council on Wednesday spent four hours debating changes to the city’s code before President Nury Martinez decided to delay a vote to Nov. 24.
The anti-camping proposal would bar people from sitting, lying down or bunking down near schools, parks or day care centers. Tents couldn’t be set up near shelters or other facilities serving homeless people that have opened in recent years.
Those sleeping on the streets would have to keep clear from right of ways such as driveways and loading docks and leave enough room for wheelchair users to pass under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
One amendment to the law could allow authorities to eventually remove homeless camps anywhere in the city if the campers are first offered shelter as an alternative to sleeping on the street.
The council took up similar rules a year ago that never passed.
With more than 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, tents are clustered on sidewalks throughout the city, in vacant lots and under highway bridges.
Even though the meeting was held remotely, about 40 opponents gathered outside City Hall to protest, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Where will we go?” asked Ayman Ahmed, who said he is homeless. “The math doesn’t even add up to go into shelters. There aren’t enough. This lacks common sense.”
Asked about the issue during his COVID-19 briefing, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he would look very carefully at what the City Council passes before deciding whether to support or veto it.
“I fundamentally believe, as I’ve stated before, in a right to housing,” Garcetti said. “I’m optimistic that we could see a huge expansion of our housing programs and that, more than anything else … really are the solution. Otherwise, you’re trying to clean up a mess that continues to get worse and worse.”
“I do believe that not all public space can just be a place where all people can camp but it’s inhumane” to move people along without having shelter available for them, he said.
Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who co-authored the measure, said any citywide ban would only go into effect once there is a system to track shelter availability and broad agreement over what constitutes acceptable shelter.
“We have to have a system that says, ‘we have the beds, and here’s where they are,’” Blumenfield told The Associated Press Wednesday. He conceded it would take some time. “But down the road we can say to the people on the streets, ‘here’s an alternative to sleeping on concrete tonight.’”
A letter opposing the changes, and especially the amendment, was signed by more than 40 homeless services providers and advocacy groups. Opponents fear the restrictions would send the message that homeless people are criminals.
“This gives the city the chance to overreach and criminalize the vast majority of homeless people,” said Andreina Kniss, an organizer with KTown for All, a grassroots group that advocates for homeless residents. “How would you even enforce it? At the end of the day it’s going to mean more interaction with police, and more homeless people ending up in jail.”
Kniss estimated that currently there are only about 11,000 shelter beds available on any given night in Los Angeles.
Councilman Mike Bonin had proposed an alternate approach that would instead focus on increasing housing.
“The way to get people off the streets is through housing, shelter, and services, not legislative fiats that only serve to push encampments deeper into residential neighborhoods,” Bonin said before the meeting. “Los Angeles consistently tries to lead with enforcement, and consistently fails. If we want to house people and keep sidewalks clear, let’s commandeer vacant hotels, lease apartment units, and get people housed immediately.”
Los Angeles has had a law on the books regulating sleeping on sidewalks since 1968. Much of it was negated by a 2018 federal appeals court ruling that barred municipalities from citing people for camping on sidewalks unless there is adequate shelter space available for those who are homeless.
The proposed new regulations seek to comply with that ruling and recent orders by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is presiding over a lawsuit alleging that the city and county of Los Angeles have failed to adequately address the homelessness crisis. At Carter’s direction, the city and county committed to providing shelter for about 6,700 people estimated to be living near freeways.
Blumenfield said Wednesday that in his district at least 60 people have been moved away from under overpasses to either hotels or shelters.
Homelessness is a crisis statewide. Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed to spending hundreds of millions for California’s Project Homekey initiative, which aims to convert hotels, motels, and other buildings into housing for the homeless.
Earlier this month the City Council in Oakland approved a contentious new policy that prohibits homeless people from setting up tents in parks or near homes, businesses, schools and some churches. Mayor Libby Schaaf said the policy, which will start being enforced in January, is “a compassionate response to an unacceptable condition.”
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