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The case that may crack LA’s homeless crisis



MONROE, La. – Homeless encampments dot almost every city and many unincorporated areas in Southern California and, as any visitor to San Francisco knows, the legions of the unhoused are not limited to Los Angeles or San Diego.

But Los Angeles city and county, which counted 66,000 homeless a year ago, is the undisputed epicenter of cardboard structures and plastic tents, spilling out over sidewalks and onto streets, collecting under almost every highway underpass and along the cement river beds of the region. Every single person “living rough” is a unique tragedy. A judgment is coming, and soon.

Federal District Court Judge David O. Carter now sits in judgment in a civil suit brought last March by residents and business leaders against the city and county. The plaintiffs charge that the local governments have wasted public funds, endangered citizens and ignored their duty as the homeless crisis has spread. They are seeking immediate relief and action. Many say Carter will rule in the plaintiffs’ favor soon.

Carter is not a judge who sits mulling things in his chambers; he is well known for taking the toughest cases and issuing stern orders. This winter, Carter held a hearing in the heart of Los Angeles’s Skid Row, a sprawling 50 blocks of dystopia downtown. It’s far from the only encampment of the unhoused, but it is rife with violence against women, homeless veterans, the addicted and the mentally ill. To spend a day in Skid Row is an awakening. To spend a night there, I suspect, would be harrowing.

Carter has warned in previous orders that the situation reminds him of the massive government resistance to desegregation beginning in the 1950s and of indifference by government to overwhelming prison overcrowding in the past decade. On both occasions, federal district courts took over as state and local governments broke down. Many citizens and not a few officials want Carter to place the city and county in receivership, seize the vast resources allocated but ineffectively spent or hoarded and use the thousands and thousands of city and county properties to rehouse the homeless.

The case has attracted the interest of parties from every corner of the culture and region. To this conservative professor of constitutional law, there is overwhelming evidence of past intentional discrimination on the basis of race and gender by the local governments. Nor has it been easy for faith-based groups to help the people who are unhoused; the City of Los Angeles excludes many faith-based groups from ministering to the desperate because of the groups’ insistence on sober living within their walls. Big Law — the city’s most influential lawyers — have joined the legal fray on behalf of the destitute, interest groups and property owners denied use of their property by encampments two and three deep on sidewalks and streets.

Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Mo., is among the nation’s many mayors dealing with the homeless in new ways. He’s open to allocating much of the stimulus money headed toward his city — some $200 million — to a fund from which the interest would be spent on housing stock and addiction and mental health services to his city’s 1,800 to 2,000 unhoused people. Other jurisdictions across the country should consider banking their stimulus and using it as a permanent endowment for homeless relief — the problem is never “solved” but can be managed if done carefully, preserving capital and spending the interest on the ever-changing face of homelessness.

Could a judge order a local government to set aside stimulus money and use those funds, where needed, to stem the rising tide of homelessness? Some legal observers who are following the case believe the judge may be so frustrated with the executive and legislative inaction that such an order is conceivable.

Under this theory, Carter could seize not only the incoming stimulus funds — perhaps a billion or more for the city and county — along with the billion-plus already voted in bonds by local residents to address the crisis — and sweep away the deadlocked bureaucracy that hasn’t fixed the problem. Everyone would cheer.

In its place, he could take the list of available properties already provided to the court — there are more than 14,000 available properties owned by local governments in the county — and invite the private sector to construct temporary and permanent housing across the sprawling geography of the region. There is no lack of space or money, only will and purpose.

Carter has spent a year building a record, holding hearings, probing various agencies. If he finds that circumstances and inaction by elected authorities compel him to act, he will have the broad support of the public, the legal community and probably both the left and right appointees of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The homeless crisis in California cries out for the third branch of government to step in where the first two have failed so comprehensively.