LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A Salvation Army official told a federal judge today that the organization would offer 17 of its newly closed thrift stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties for use as homeless shelters during the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioner Kenneth Hodder, the territorial commander of the Salvation Army in the western United States, said only operational costs would be billed should the offer be accepted. A hearing was set for Tuesday morning in Santa Ana federal court to discuss the details.
The offer came during an unusual daylong hearing in downtown Los Angeles in which U.S. District Judge David Carter removed his robe and roamed the well of a courtroom speaking casually to both sides in a lawsuit challenging what an activist group contends is a lack of official action to protect homeless people during the crisis.
``At some point, most of us are going to be exposed -- and hopefully survive,'' Carter said at the start of the emergency status conference in the case filed last week by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights against the city and county of Los Angeles.
Carter described the coronavirus as ``a wave that's about to hit us. Let's save some lives as fast as we can.''
A host of city and county officials attended the Los Angeles federal court hearing, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Police Chief Michel Moore, Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and City Attorney Mike Feuer. Representatives from Los Angeles County Public Health were invited but did not attend.
Garcetti pressed for solutions to housing the thousands of people living in tents, in cars and on the streets throughout the city.
``This is best prevented and treated indoors, not outdoors,'' Garcetti said, reiterating a series of emergency measures aimed at getting homeless people into temporary shelters. As many as 1,600 beds would be made available by the end of the week at 13 recreation centers across the city, with an ultimate goal of bringing 6,000 beds online at 42 rec centers in the coming weeks, he told the court.
The L.A. Alliance, a coalition of Skid Row-area business owners, formerly homeless, and disabled city dwellers, contend the apparent lack of services and alleged negligence on the part of city and county officials has resulted in a multitude of increasing dangers in the area.
Carter is known for his often-hands-on administration of cases, most notably in Orange County, where he oversaw the opening of homeless shelters following the removal of thousands of people in an encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim.
In an effort to sidestep the red tape and bureaucracy that often hampers settlements in such cases, the judge urged the participants to exchange phone numbers, telling attorneys that he could be reached at any time.
``Let's get folks in shelters as quickly as possible,'' Carter said during what he called a ``big tent'' meeting.
Observers were told to sit 6 feet apart, causing the large courtroom gallery to quickly fill, leaving many outside who were barred from entering. Only four members of the press were allowed access, and Carter said Thursday afternoon that he was sorry that more could not be admitted.
Along with the rent-free Salvation Army offer, Carter heard from a builder of modular shelter structures that could be quickly shipped from Canada. The proposal offered 25,000 beds for $340 million. The use of motels, hotels and semi-permanent tents for temporary housing was also discussed.
``People are perishing in the streets at a rate of three per day while the city and county of Los Angeles have tried but failed to stem this tide of human tragedy,'' plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit. ``The numbers alone are staggering.''
The complaint cites 58,936 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 36,300 in the city -- an increase of 12% and 16% from the prior year, respectively.
``Some 75% of these are unsheltered persons who lack regular access to basic hygiene care such as toilets, running water to wash hands, showers, sinks, kitchen, laundry which has led to filthy (and unhealthy) conditions,'' according to the L.A. Alliance. ``Los Angeles bears the dishonorable distinction of hosting the largest unsheltered population in the country.''
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas issued a statement Thursday addressing the situation, outlining the threat the pandemic poses.
``We are housing a record number of 133 homeless people daily, but this is far from enough given the mortal threat that COVID-19 poses to this extremely vulnerable population, especially unsheltered seniors and those who are medically fragile or pregnant,'' he said, adding that time is of the essence ``and we must be resolute in our efforts to seize every opportunity to shelter as many vulnerable individuals as possible as quickly as possible.''