LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The federal judge overseeing attempts to resolve the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles has called an urgent meeting at a Skid Row shelter on Thursday to discuss worsening conditions and what he considers the city's failure to respond to the recent rainstorm that threatened lives on downtown streets.
Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring mental health and substance abuse issues, homelessness in the region is comparable to “a significant natural disaster in Southern California with no end in sight,'' U.S. District Judge David Carter wrote in an order filed late Sunday in federal court.
Carter recounted witnessing the impact of the rains Friday morning on the homeless along Skid Row, “particularly elderly women and victims of mental illness, at least one of whom was naked and suffering from hypothermia,'' he wrote.
Carter stated that while some “ad hoc efforts'' were made to address the crisis caused by the storm, it was only through the life-preserving actions of Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de Leon, the Union Rescue Mission, the Downtown Women's Center and other organizations “that additional suffering and loss of life was averted. These conditions cannot be allowed to continue!''
In past months, the court has focused on relocating the homeless away from freeways, but “nothing substantial has been done to remediate the appalling and dangerous conditions in Los Angeles' Skid Row,'' Carter wrote, noting that 1,383 homeless persons died in Los Angeles County last year, a 32% increase of the number of homeless deaths recorded in 2019.
Carter blasted city officials, pointing to an “apparent abdication of responsibility by local authorities'' to keep the streets safe, adding that the court “cannot allow the paralysis of the political process'' to continue to endanger the lives of indigent residents and the safety of the surrounding communities.
City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statement that “as long as there are unhoused Angelenos living on our streets, all of us should be impatient about finding additional solutions. At Thursday's court hearing, the judge has asked to hear about the steps the city has taken and intends to take. Every day L.A.'s homeless crisis persists is a day that diminishes all of us and city leaders should explore every possible path forward.''
Carter is overseeing a federal civil lawsuit filed by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights seeking to compel Los Angeles city and county officials to address the homelessness crisis.
The plaintiff, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, service providers, small-business owners, residents and community leaders, has won an agreement between the city and county to provide 6,700 beds, 6,000 of which are due by April.
The agreement was the result of an injunction issued by the court ordering the humane relocation of people living over, under and near freeways. However, without an anti-camping ordinance making it illegal for the homeless to return to their encampments, momentum slowed in September and October.
While there have been important victories during the past nine months - - including 8,000 beds put in place for the needy -- bureaucratic tangles blocked the path forward, said L.A. Alliance attorney Elizabeth Mitchell.
Carter's order represents a “dynamic'' turn of events which is “absolutely necessary to break through the inertia,'' Mitchell said.
“This is a sea change,'' the attorney said, adding that Los Angeles is facing a crisis of Federal Emergency Management Agency proportions, which “requires a FEMA-like response. The city must write its own destiny.''
Carter, meanwhile, is tracking the impact of homelessness on the city and county, and it appears “conditions are substantially worse than those existing in June 2020,'' the judge wrote in his order.
The meeting Thursday at the Downtown Women's Center will touch upon whether the court should deploy “any and all equitable remedies'' in its power to strengthen efforts to tackle the “rapidly accelerating and increasingly deadly epidemic'' of homelessness downtown.
In its September report, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted 66,436 homeless people in the county, representing a 12.7% rise from the previous year. There was a 16.1% increase in Los Angeles to 41,290.
The organization also reported that de Leon's Council District 14 -- which includes downtown Los Angeles and Skid Row -- had the highest number of unhoused residents in the city with 7,896 people on the streets -- more than 20% of the entire homeless population of Los Angeles.
De Leon said last week's storm and cold weather “punctuated the suffering around Los Angeles' homelessness crisis because people were exposed to the natural elements -- wet, shivering, and desperate. The incident on Friday was one that plays out every day in Skid Row and in other parts of our city, the struggle to find shelter for vulnerable unhoused Angelenos.''
De Leon said that it's a priority “to aggressively work to ensure we merge our resources with efficiency to alleviate the human distress on our streets. Ultimately, though, this is how we dig ourselves out of this hole: every level of government working together, pooling resources, and building like hell so we can get people indoors.''