LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles City Council passed a sweeping anti-camping measure Thursday to remove widespread homeless encampments that have become an eyesore across the city.
The measure was billed as a compassionate approach to get people off streets and restore access to public spaces in the city with nation's second-largest homeless population, though critics said it would criminalize the problem.
“I can’t think of any reason why we would not unite in support of what the people of Los Angeles want us to do," said Councilman Paul Krekorian, coauthor of the measure. "Restore order to our streets, while also uplifting and providing services to those in need.”
Among other limits, the ordinance that passed 13-2 would ban sitting, lying, sleeping or storing personal property that blocks sidewalks, streets and bike lanes or near driveways, fire hydrants, schools, day care centers, libraries, homeless shelters and parks.
It wouldn’t be enforced in some locations until someone has turned down an offer of shelter and the council has passed a resolution placing that space off-limits, posting signs and giving two weeks' notice. It could be enforced immediately if a person or tent is blocking handicap access guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act or placing themselves or others in danger such as blocking a loading dock.
The measure, which requires a second vote in late July, replaces a more punitive anti-camping proposal that stalled in a committee. Under the ordinance approved, police would only get involved if there's a crime, and people who resist leaving would be fined rather than arrested.
The majority of callers during a limited public comment period spoke in support of the measure, describing homeless encounters that included assaults, break-ins and one explaining how children walking to school are forced into a busy street to avoid tents crowding sidewalks.
People who opposed the measure, including a couple who used profanity, said it lacked compassion and would criminalize a problem the city has failed to solve.
The meeting was closed to the public because of coronavirus restrictions, but a group of advocates for the homeless protested outside City Hall.
Pete White of the LA Community Action Network said the measure is loosely written to allow broad interpretation for enforcement and will make most of the city off-limits to people living on the street.
“Draconian is definitely the correct word,” he said. “It’s impossible to comply.”
White said that an ordinance that limited where people could park RVs and sleep in cars overnight left little more than 5% of streets available for parking.
California is home to more than a quarter of the nation’s homeless people, according to federal data, and it has reached a crisis point in many cities. There are deep disagreements in how to solve a problem that goes beyond economics and is often complicated by mental illness and addiction issues that require treatment and can make people resistant to accepting shelter.
The city of Los Angeles has an estimated homeless population of more than 40,000, which is second only to New York's.
Encampments have steadily grown over several years and often sprawl entire blocks. They can include barbecues, sofas, recliner chairs and even a shower. Many are crammed with piles of belongings, scavenged junk and covered in tarps.
A federal judge directed the city of LA to offer housing to thousands of homeless people on Skid Row by this fall, though the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put that on hold.
The appeals court has separately held that cities can't make it a crime for homeless people to sleep on the streets when alternative shelter is not available.
The leading Republican candidates seeking to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recall election came to LA County this week to announce their plans to address the statewide problem.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer called for more shelters, while rival businessman John Cox said people insisting on sleeping on streets should be locked up or forced into treatment.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, has proposed a “right to housing” that would require the city to provide shelter to all residents.
While the crisis is widespread across Los Angeles, a dispute about how to solve the problem has become a flashpoint on Venice Beach recently, where an encampment exploded in size during the coronavirus pandemic.
The situation has left residents weary and worried for their safety — and for the wellbeing of those in camps — after several violent incidents. A homeless man was arrested last week in the killing of another homeless man who was bludgeoned in his tent on the beach.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose deputies patrol unincorporated parts of the county, entered city turf with a homeless outreach team to announce a plan to get people into housing by July 4.
His lofty overture, which has moved some people off the boardwalk but is unlikely to meet his goal this weekend, was met with resistance from much of LA's political establishment, particularly Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice.
Bonin, who criticized an approach that could lead to jail time if people don't leave, launched his own plan days later. That effort, which has moved 64 people indoors, is being rolled out in several phases into August and promises to eventually provide permanent housing.
Bonin opposed the ordinance Thursday, saying the city doesn't have tens of thousands of beds needed for the homeless and criticizing the plan for not showing where people can sleep.
Bonin, who is recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, disclosed that he lived without a home in his 20s and ended up sleeping on the beach when his car was in the shop or he couldn't crash at a friend's house.
“I can't tell you how much turmoil, there is in your heart when the sun is setting and you don’t know where you can sleep,” Bonin said. “I cannot describe how demoralizing and dehumanizing and defeating that experience is when you don’t know where you’re gonna sleep.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the measure requires a second vote later this month, not next month.