L.A. City/County Officials Expected at Urgent Homelessness Lawsuit Hearing

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles city and county officials are expected this morning at an emergency meeting called to break a deadlock in negotiations aimed at immediately providing shelter for 6,700 people living on the streets under the threat of the coronavirus.

The last-minute mediation conference was placed on the calendar Tuesday by a Los Angeles federal judge fed up with a funding logjam that has stymied progress for months since the city and county agreed to move forward with plans to provide beds and shelter to many of the region's most badly-off residents.

The attempt to restore momentum has taken on increased urgency, with figures just released by the county coroner that deaths on the streets are up 33% since last year, with 1,014 dead since January.

“Every person experiencing homelessness we lose is a tragedy -- nobody should die on the street,'' said Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “L.A.'s rehousing system has moved 61,958 people out of homelessness and into housing in the past three years. The best way to prevent homelessness-related deaths is to prevent homelessness altogether, and we continue to work with our mainstream system partners to bolster prevention programs and housing creation.''

In his order, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. blasted city and county officials for continuing to bicker and “waste time'' instead of quickly finalizing plans to get people off the streets.

The judge wrote that the court was “extremely disappointed'' that in the nearly four months since the parties reached an agreement, plans to move forward have been frozen by “unnecessarily rigid positions'' indicating an unwillingness to work together to address “a crisis of unprecedented magnitude in Los Angeles.''

Birotte, a federal court judge and former U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, ordered representatives of the city and county to attend the off-site meeting at the county Hall of Administration.

The situation stems from a lawsuit brought by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of Skid Row-area business owners, formerly homeless and disabled city dwellers, who accuse the city and county of dragging their feet in not doing enough to get the homeless off city streets and into housing - - especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although an agreement was reached in June to provide an additional 6,700 beds over the next 16 months, with funding for five years thereafter, a confidential joint status report filed Monday indicates that momentum has bogged down in disagreements and inaction, Birotte wrote.

“The joint report is hardly `joint' at all,'' Birotte wrote in his three-page order.

Rev. Andy Bales, chief executive of downtown's Union Rescue Mission, remains optimistic that the parties will work their problems out to provide immediate shelter for thousands in need of help.

“The pace of deaths is picking up at an extreme rate,'' Bales told City News Service. “I hope for certain we're going to get immediate practical housing.''

Bales, who has attended hearings in the L.A. Alliance case and is involved behind the scenes, said he and his team are “praying for the judge to make a courageous decision'' and see that funding issues are resolved and money is provided for immediate shelter and services.

Last month, Los Angeles County notified the court that it has made its first payment of $17.6 million to the city in compliance with the agreement.

According to the pact, the city is responsible for creating 5,300 new beds by April and 700 additional new beds by December 2021 for a total of 6,000 new beds.

The city also must provide an additional 700 beds by April that “may be beds previously captured in an agreement or plan between the city and county,'' according to the county's notice.

The county has committed to pay up to $293 million over the next fiveyears to support the city's obligation to provide the 6,000 new beds. The first payment of $17.6 million to the city was made on Sept. 1 in compliance with a binding term sheet, the notice states.

The details of the impasse were not immediately available.

“While it should be unnecessary, the Court feels compelled to remind the parties that the challenge of homelessness, and the parties' decades-long inability to jointly address it, has plagued this region for more than 30 years,'' Birotte wrote.

“If the parties are unable to reach agreement on this preliminary aspect of this litigation, it does not bode well for the nearly 60,000 experiencing homelessness'' in the city and county.

Birotte wrote that based on the latest report, “it appears that the parties are more intent on repeating history than changing it.''

“There are 80 days until Christmas and both governments need to act now,'' Birotte wrote. “History should not be doomed to repeat itself here, and the Court is committed to ensuring that the City and County work together to finalize a Memorandum of Understanding that adequately addresses the Binding Term Sheet.

“While it is unfortunate that the Court has to intervene, it appears that the parties cannot resolve matters on their own.''

Photo: Getty Images

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