LA cracks down on homeless encampments near schools

The Los Angeles City Council voted on Tuesday to ban homeless people from setting up tents within 500 feet of schools and daycares, in a raucous meeting where protesters shouted at council members and, at a moment, interrupted the meeting.

The new restrictions, approved by an 11-3 vote, dramatically increase the number of places where sleeping and camping are prohibited. And they come amid a furious debate over how the city should respond to the encampments that have sprung up in many parts of the city.

Members of the public repeatedly chanted “shut it up” as council member Joe Buscaino, a longtime supporter of increased enforcement, tried to speak out in favor of the restrictions. The President of the Council, Nury Martinez, then interrupted the meeting for more than an hour so that the police could evacuate the room.

After the public members left, council members reconvened, discussed the measure, and voted.

“I think people intended this morning to shut this place down and prevent us from doing the job that we were all elected to do,” Martinez said before the vote. “And that, I think, is incredibly disturbing.”

Under the new restrictions, people would be prohibited from sitting, sleeping, lying or storing property within 500 feet of every public and private school, not just the few dozen selected by the council over the course of the last year.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South Los Angeles, voted against the restrictions, telling reporters they would move the city to an “inhumanity that is unbecoming of the citizens of the city.”

Councilman Mike Bonin, another opponent of the restrictions, said city leaders should instead focus their energy on improving programs that help homeless Angelenos, such as those that help people with vouchers. housing to secure an apartment.

“We have to be relentlessly and exclusively focused on getting people inside,” said Bonin, who represents coastal neighborhoods from Los Angeles International Airport north to Pacific Palisades.

Councilwoman Nithya Raman, whose district includes the Hollywood Hills, also voted against the proposal. A second and final vote will be required next week.

Bonin predicted that the changes would result in a roughly tenfold increase in the number of sites subject to enforcement, from more than 200 to around 2,000. The city’s supporting documents on the proposal did not give a figure. clear showing how many sites would be covered.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials told The Times that about 750 school sites are within the city limits, a figure that does not include private or parochial schools. Nearly 1,000 commercial daycare businesses are registered with the city’s Bureau of Finance, though it’s unclear if all of those locations would be covered by the city’s new law.

Tuesday’s vote came more than two months after Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho made a surprise in-person appearance before board members to request the new restrictions. Parents and school staff have also spoken out in favor of the changes, saying they have observed erratic and even violent behavior on or near school campuses.

Martha Alvarez, who oversees government relations for the school district, told the board that LA Unified found 120 campuses with encampments over the past year.

“These conditions are a danger to public health,” she said. “They are dangerous and traumatic for students, families and staff when they enter school campuses.”

Buscaino also came out in support, saying he was already working to open more beds for the homeless across the city.

“I supported the Bridge Home shelters. I supported Tiny Homes, Project Roomkey, Project Homekey, permanent supportive housing,” Buscaino said. “But what I don’t support are drug dens near our schools, parks, or anywhere kids congregate.”

A woman walks with two school-aged youths past a homeless encampment in Hollywood

A woman and schoolchildren walk past a homeless encampment near Larchmont Charter School in August 2021.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The new school year begins on August 15.

Opponents of the proposal have repeatedly argued that the council’s restrictions would effectively outlaw poverty, resulting in the death of homeless Angelenos. Banning encampments around schools, they said, would simply push people and their belongings a block or two away.

“There are a lot of people struggling right now, and we should be helping them,” Andrew Graebner said, appearing before council.

The council’s actions have also drawn opposition from PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, which builds low-income housing with support services. Tyler Renner, a spokesperson for the organization, said the restrictions would waste the city’s time and resources.

Enforcing anti-camping orders … only displaces people and makes it harder for trained outreach staff to re-establish trust,” he said in a statement.

The new restrictions come as city officials are gradually closing one of the flagship programs set up to help the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic: Project Roomkey, which has turned multi-story hotels into shelters. fortune.

These facilities have allowed the city to bring many more people indoors than before, at a time when the mass shelter system, where many people sleep in one room, had to operate well below capacity. under social distancing guidelines.

The Mayfair Hotel, which provided 252 rooms under the scheme, recently ended its participation. The LA Grand Hotel downtown and the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood, which offered 553 rooms combined, are expected to cease operations as Project Roomkey sites at the end of the month, according to Brian Buchner, the homelessness coordinator for the town.

The Airtel Plaza hotel, which provided 237 rooms, is expected to end its participation in the program on September 30.

Buchner said there are “active discussions” at City Hall and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority about extending the deadline at one or more of those facilities.

Tuesday’s vote represents a shift in the city’s approach to enforcing its anti-camping law, reducing the discretion wielded by council members and establishing a more sweeping policy. It’s a stark contrast to last summer, when the law’s supporters touted it as a narrow and targeted measure, with enforcement accompanied by offers of outreach worker services.

Over the past year, permanent metal signs setting release times for homeless people have been posted in more than 200 locations, including 33 schools or nurseries. In some places, tents and makeshift shelters remained for weeks or months past the deadline, as outreach workers struggled to persuade people to move voluntarily.

Although some sites are now cleared of tents and campsites, others later had more people living on the sidewalk than when outreach workers initially assessed the locations.

City and county officials, as well as homeless service providers, previously told The Times that an insufficient number of outreach workers and a lack of interim housing options hampered the implementation of the law.

Foes of the council’s homelessness strategy have repeatedly called for curbside camping restrictions to be lifted. Some of those critics are now leading candidates in the Nov. 8 election.

Accountant Kenneth Mejia, favorite in the race to replace City Comptroller Ron Galperin, said the new rules would make about a fifth of the city’s sidewalks off-limits to the homeless. On social media, he has repeatedly criticized the city’s anti-encampment law, which not only focuses on schools and daycares but also requires sidewalks to provide 36 inches of clearance for wheelchair users.

Council member Paul Koretz, who trailed Mejia by nearly 20 percentage points last month, voted in favor of the new law.

The new anti-encampment law is also an issue in other contests. Civil rights lawyer Faisal Gill, currently in the running to succeed City Atty. Mike Feuer, previously vowed not to enforce the order, saying it is unconstitutional and will be overturned by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gill’s opponent, attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, declined to take a position on the measure when contacted by The Times.

“The validity, interpretation and enforceability of the [anti-encampment] the order will definitely come before the next LA City Attorney,” she said in a statement. “And if I’m the city attorney, I would want the opportunity to consult with my clients — the LA City Council — before I take a landline job.”

A city-wide contest where there is some agreement on the council’s approach is the mayoral race. U.S. Representative Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso, both mayoral candidates, have come out in favor of restrictions on encampments near schools and daycares.

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