Editorial: A judge doesn't get to pick which homeless people in L.A. get housed first

·4 min read
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Francisco Aldana, left, fist bumps a fellow homeless man under the 405 Freeway on Venice Boulevard in 2019. (Los Angeles Times)

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter has been a passionate advocate for getting homeless people housed and sheltered. Even during the pandemic, he has visited L.A. homeless shelters and walked the streets of skid row to talk with residents. (He wore a mask or kept a safe distance from others on these outings, but he is 76 years old.) Now he is hearing a lawsuit filed by a group of Los Angeles business owners, downtown dwellers and homeless shelter residents against city and county government. The plaintiffs contend that local officials have violated a state welfare law by allowing homeless people to live on the streets and risk their health.

Known for being abrupt in court, he has little patience — make that no patience — for the slow pace of sheltering and housing homeless people, and has made it clear that he wants action, not just proposals.

But the judge went too far when he issued a preliminary injunction last Friday ordering the county and city to move several thousand homeless people away from encampments around freeway overpasses and underpasses and into shelter or housing, starting this coming Friday.

Even as the city and county have housed and sheltered homeless people in the last six weeks at an unprecedented rate — about 2,400 are in hotel and motel rooms throughout the county and 1,000 more are in shuttered recreation centers that the city turned into shelters — the number assisted is a fraction of the 15,000 that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has identified as most vulnerable to getting very sick from the virus. And overall, there are nearly 60,000 homeless people across the county. Those numbers dwarf the supply of shelter beds, hotel rooms and permanent housing units available.

We understand the judge's desire to light a fire under local officials. But this injunction is not the way to do that. It’s not Carter’s job to pick which homeless people get into housing ahead of others. That’s a task for the city and county and the professionals who run their homelessness services operations. And in fact, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has identified the homeless people it wants at the head of the line for the limited number of federally subsidized hotel rooms it has been able to lease: those who are 65 and older or have an underlying medical conditions. Some people living near freeways may fit that description. Others may not. And in order to be housed in those hotel rooms, people must fit the eligibility criteria set by the federal government.

Also, we’re not sure the judge is correctly interpreting the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which requires the state to support poor and incapacitated people. The law establishes a minimum level of general assistance (that is, welfare payments) that counties must provide. Carter is reading it as a right to shelter and housing. Such a major policy change should be left to the Legislature.

Even if people living near freeways are exposed to particular environmental harms, that shouldn’t necessarily give them priority for shelter and housing. Being homeless anywhere is debilitating. And there are reasons why homeless people seek out underpasses — as shelter from rain, heat, and unwelcoming residents and store owners.

If Los Angeles could come up with enough capacity quickly to house the estimated 3,000 to 7,000 freeway-adjacent dwellers, what about people who turn down the offered room or shelter? The judge’s order says at that point— if sufficient shelter is available — homeless people could be ordered to “relocate an adequate distance” from a freeway. That may sound like a safety improvement, but it’s the opposite. The CDC has warned that dispersing people in homeless encampments increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Thankfully, Carter has allowed city and county officials to file alternative plans. There's no shortage of smart, fast ways to get more homeless people off the street. So-called tiny houses, modular dwellings, safe parking lots for people living in their vehicles, and areas for sanctioned encampments with bathrooms, food and medical care for people who remain in their tents are all ideas that should be on the table and could be executed in a matter of weeks and months.

Carter has the right goal if not the right means to get there. During this pandemic — and beyond it — people should not be living on streets, whether they’re in the shadow of a freeway or miles away.

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