On April 20, a US District Court judge set his foot down.
"How did racism become embedded in the politics and structure of our new city here in Los Angeles," he wrote. "What if there was a conscious effort, a deliberate intention, a cowardice of inaction?"
In more than 100 pages, Judge David O. Carter described the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles and its various effects on black residents. He ruled a case for the LA Alliance for Human Rights, a group formed in recent years to sue the city and county of Los Angeles over an emergency of homelessness.
Drawing on what some experts say that Vox are novel legal theories, Carter took homelessness politics into his own hands with a bold approach that at first sight seems encouraging – but many of the reforms proposed by the court have fallen under the magnifying glass.
Carter's appointment requires, among other things:
The city of Los Angeles is expected to deposit $ 1 billion within seven days. (Carter later put that request on hold.)
The city and county of Los Angeles are scheduled to shelter all unaccompanied women and children in Skid Row, a neighborhood dotted with thousands of homeless Angelenos, through July 19, 2021.
The city and county of Los Angeles will offer protection to all families living on Skid Row through August 18, 2021.
The city and county of Los Angeles are expected to provide shelter for the rest of the population living on Skid Row through October 17, 2021.
The orders sparked a firestorm among the homeless, affordable property developers and local governments. The homeless crisis has escalated in Los Angeles. In a June 2020 report, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority revealed a staggering 66,436 people without a residence, up 12.7 percent from the previous year.
Judge David O. Carter leaves a closed hearing to discuss solutions to the homeless crisis on Skid Row on March 26, 2020.
Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Few disagree that this is an emergency. Indeed, Carter's opinion uses the defendants' language railing several times liberally against the state of homelessness. However, there is huge disagreement about how to fix the problem, so homeless advocates are divided over Carter's decision.
The dispute highlights the difficulties in resolving the growing homelessness crisis in many American cities. As the problems become more visible to residents, finding a quick fix can redirect government funding to poor policies. In reality, the homelessness crisis is inextricably linked to the existing national lack of affordable housing, which is itself the result of numerous political choices made on a daily basis by local and state governments.
Why many homelessness experts don't believe the $ 1 billion solution is the answer
The lawsuit in question, LA Alliance for Human Rights v City of Los Angeles, was brought by a group that some said had business interests in the Skid Row neighborhood. (The alliance, which refused to share its membership roster with Vox, describes itself as a "group of small business owners, residents and social service providers".)
Daniel Conway, an Allianz policy advisor, told Vox that the aim of the lawsuit is to require the government to provide "immediate housing" and limit people's ability to sleep outside. Conway added that the effort should not be a "law enforcement measure". Instead, he says, “It's about outreach workers, social workers and therapists moving the homeless to temporary accommodation.
Of course, if someone refuses housing, law enforcement – not social workers – are responsible for enforcing the ordinances criminalizing homelessness.
Carter's order confirmed much of what the Alliance was looking for, but it also sparked a backlash.
The defendants immediately challenged the order to put $ 1 billion in escrow.
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office told me that there’s not "just one billion dollars in cash." In response, Carter changed his order several days later to oblige Los Angeles to work out a plan to ensure that $ 1 billion would be spent on homelessness alleviation.
The concerns didn't stop there. A portion of the funds to be allocated for temporary housing would be drawn from the Prop HHH Supportive Housing Loan Program (HHH), which is intended for long-term housing.
Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de León (left) speaks to Michelle Coultier, who has been homeless for eight years, in February 2021.
Damian Dovarganes / AP
This program, which issues bonds to subsidize housing development for the homeless and vulnerable Angelenos, had its problems. Nearly midway through his 10-year tenure, HHH produced just 7 percent of the housing units it should make, according to the city dashboard, which tracks its progress.
Even so, the plan should provide long-term solutions, and now that the money is being used to build housing, it is, by definition, only a temporary solution. In addition, $ 976 million (or 81 percent) of the income from the bond program has already been committed.
Carter's contract immediately put affordable developers into uncertainty, as existing projects that depend on that funding can be at risk if the city has to reallocate funds.
"Nonprofit developers are trying to figure out how reallocating HHH funds will affect their developments," said Jet Doye, vice president of development at Skid Row Housing Trust, which provides and manages permanent support housing at vulnerable Angelenos. Doye stated that demanding that all HHH funds be used for temporary housing solutions could undermine many of these projects.
"Security is a really important concept (in housing)," Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, told Vox. "When the court steps in and says," I'm going to change the rules in pretty significant ways, "there really is a lot of confusion and fear. … I think the restraining order really disrupted the work we are doing."
But perhaps the most worrying part of Carter's order is that sentence, which was buried at the end: "After adequate protection has been provided, the Tribunal will uphold any constitutional ordinance consistent with Boise and Mitchell's stocks."
Martin v City of Boise and Mitchell v City of Los Angeles are cases that explore the limits of criminalizing homelessness. The Martin case challenged the constitutionality of two city ordinances that prevent people from sleeping or camping on public land. The Mitchell ruling arose out of a lawsuit brought against Los Angeles by four homeless residents who accused police of "confiscating and subsequently destroying" their personal property without a warrant. The specific principles set out in each case are complicated, but citing their names, experts say, Carter suggests that Los Angeles would be free after offering temporary shelter to homeless people who refuse to accept it to evacuate by force.
"One of the concerns is that this order allows for the criminalization of homelessness and the resulting relocation measures for the homeless regardless of where they will actually go," said Greenlee.
A sharp rise in house prices is a major contributor to increasing homelessness in expensive cities like Los Angeles.
Frederick J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
There are many reasons why individuals turn down offers of temporary accommodation and are therefore prone to forced relocation. The Los Angeles Times editors wrote, “It can take weeks, if not months, to convince the homeless to accept a shelter bed. This is a population that has been hit by the rigors of the roads. Many suffer from addictions or mental illnesses and are suspicious of other outreach workers who have made promises they have not kept. "
Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, went more literal. It's not just a suspicion of help, he says – it's that the help offered might actually be too expensive: "We often talk about the three Ps: pets, partners, and possessions."
Many animal shelters prevent people from bringing their pets, which some unhoused residents do not want to do. It's hard for some people to understand, Tars noted. "You are denying protection because of a pet? This does not speak for the emotional significance these animals can have for people in times of crisis and trauma," he says.
Because many accommodations are same-sex or gender-specific facilities, people are often asked to separate from their significant other, which can be a deal breaker.
Finally, Tars Vox says that homeless people often do not allow homeless people to bring their belongings with them, even though they are often the only items that people have been able to get to safety since they became homeless.
Shelters often present other obstacles as well. They can have strict rules about when to come and go, they can be far from work or family, and they may not have transportation nearby, making it impossible for residents to get in Build life.
With all of these obstacles (and more) in mind, it's not hard to see why some may refuse shelter. Even if they leave, the experience may be undesirable.
Protesters gather at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Lemoyne Street before LAPD officials evict homeless people in Echo Park.
Wally Skalij / Getty Images
Erika D. Smith, an LA Times columnist, spoke to several people recently removed from another Los Angeles homeless camp:
Those who accepted hotel and motel rooms said they felt torn around and treated unfairly by the strict Project Roomkey rules. Some were ready to leave, questioning whether we can really call the clearing of Echo Park a "success" when homeless people are so unhappy with what is happening that they refuse to stay in the apartments on offer.
Rev. Andy Bales, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission and well-known lawyer for the homeless Angelenos, strongly supports the emergency shelter call, one of the few people Vox has spoken to to support this view. He referred to the need for urgency: “No more straw man arguments against emergency shelters. … 5,700 people died on the street. The status quo cannot continue. "
But do shelters work?
The limits of accommodation
With thousands on the streets during a pandemic, it can feel like the obvious solution is to get them to a safe home right away. For many, shelters seem to be the answer. Aside from the reasons why many homeless people refuse to go to shelters, there are other reasons why allocating energy and time doesn't really solve the problem.
"It's a doctor who gets the diagnosis right, but the prescription is completely wrong," Tars replied to Carter's 110-page decision.
The main cause of the increase in homelessness in high-cost cities in recent decades is rising property prices. Housing insecurity is a fact of life, but tent cities emerging in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, DC are a modern phenomenon, largely driven by high rental costs. Before the 1980s, "there were people with mental illness, many people with substance abuse disorders, many poor people, all the same problems, but there was no widespread homelessness," Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told Bloomberg CityLab in 2020. "What has changed was living."
A 2018 Zillow report that traced the link between rent affordability and homelessness concluded that “communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent have a faster rise in homelessness can count ".
A 2017 report by the US Government Accountability Office found that nearly half of all tenant households were "rent charged" (i.e., paying more than 30 percent of their household income for rent). The picture was even worse for extremely low-income Americans – 72 percent of them spent more than half their income on rent. The situation in Los Angeles is particularly dire: A survey conducted by the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation from January to October 2019 found that 75 percent of households in LA spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.
Additionally, rents in LA rose 28 percent between 2000 and 2010, while median household income rose just 1.2 percent, according to the LA Department of City Planning. All of these numbers mean the same thing: the number of people at risk of homelessness has risen sharply.
This precarious situation means that even if everyone who is currently homeless is offered residency today, more and more people will become homeless as minor financial emergencies drive their families into economic despair. To stop this flow, permanent and affordable housing solutions are required. As the LA Times editors wrote, “The ordinance treats the Skid Row homeless population as an identifiable group, even though the population does fluctuate. … In addition to the people who come and go on the streets, there are those who move into and out of emergency shelters in the neighborhood. "
"It's a doctor who gets the diagnosis right, but the prescription is completely wrong."
Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority, told NBC that while LA County houses an average of 207 people each day, 227 people are simultaneously homeless.
In his opinion, Carter calls prioritizing long-term housing a "fatal decision" as the slow pace of affordable housing ignores the tens of thousands of people who have been left on the streets. The problem, however, is not that LA has given long-term housing priority over emergency shelters – the problem is that LA's long-term housing solution is inadequate.
In a document circulated five days after his original decision, Carter clarified that "the court's injunction provides for both interim and long-term accommodation," but added that his order to skid row until mid-October vacate, continue to be in force. If Los Angeles met the requirements, the solutions would have to be shelters.
Just give people money – and provide plenty of living space
The most direct way Los Angeles currently maintains segregation and economic segregation is through exclusion zone laws, which restrict the types and supply of housing, and often lower-priced options like apartment buildings and multiplexes in favor of single-family homes with no housing reach for low-income residents.
Los Angeles has refused to respond to its massive housing shortage by liberalizing its zoning laws. Carter explains in his statement: "Without major re-zoning initiatives, Los Angeles will continue to lack the infrastructure to cope with the homelessness crisis and contain growing housing insecurity."
A key example of this was in March, when LA City Council voted against a bill that would allow small to medium-sized homes to be built near busy transit stops. This type of legislation would help increase the supply of housing. If it is legal to build more than one house on a piece of land, more people can find housing. This is not a quick fix, but smaller units are generally cheaper than single-family homes because of their size and the developers' ability to collect rents from multiple families on a single lot. Policies like these can ease pressures on the hot real estate markets and lower rents.
But the city's leadership – not only the members of the city council, but also Mayor Garcetti, who has said he wants to fight homelessness – was against the measure. Councilors said the bill would start "blowing up" and "chainsawing" neighborhoods, and Garcetti said he thought apartments just "just don't look right," according to an LA Times opinion piece written by LAplus Director Mark Vallianatos was written.
Above a homeless person sleeping in a tent on a back street in Venice, California in 2019, there is a sale sign advertising a $ 3.8 million home.
Paul Chesne / Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images
The LA leadership remains committed to the policies that bring so many people to the brink of homelessness. The reason for this is obvious: Many LA residents are unwilling to build affordable housing in their communities. Though 77 percent of voters approved a 2016 borrowing measure that launched the Prop HHH home loan assistance program, neighbors often opposed the real-world developments, according to Greenlee.
"If you look at what happened in places like Venice or even Hollywood, communities have come into effect to protest the sighting of permanent supportive housing in their communities," he added. "They're classics, homelessness … people just don't want that in their communities."
Carter's remedial action requires the LA City Council's Homelessness and Poverty Committee to report back on specific measures to deal with the crisis, including "the possibility of rededication to accommodate more R3 (multi-family) zones". But compared to the bold changes he's calling for temporary placement, it's clear that his heart really isn't in it.
"If (Carter) had ordered the city to reschedule the zone, we would have welcomed them," Doye told Vox.
For many, this solution seems too distant. How long can people wait for rents to become more affordable? For this reason, many advocates of zoning reform advocate combining zoning reform with a dramatic expansion and liberalization of the housing voucher program to ensure that low-income Americans can get help paying rent as cities try to reverse the damage caused by decades of classicist zoning laws to undo.
This is one way that a bias towards immediate action undermines the reform impulse. There is no way to resolve the homelessness crisis without also addressing the housing crisis. These are not discrete issues, and the desire to view them as separate reflects an unwillingness to address harsh political realities in favor of a "quick fix" that is anything but that.
Tents line Freeway 110 in Los Angeles on May 25, 2020.
Apu Gomes / AFP via Getty Images