LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A fed up federal judge in California said last week's rainstorm created “extraordinarily harsh” conditions for homeless residents of Los Angeles. prompting him to order city officials to meet with him at a Skid Row shelter to discuss how to address the worsening crisis of people living on the streets.
“These conditions cannot be allowed to continue!” U.S. District Judge David Carter wrote in a strongly worded order on Sunday. The action involves a lawsuit filed last March by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, which accused officials in greater Los Angeles of failing to comprehensively address the homelessness problem.
Carter calls out the city for making promises but ultimately doing nothing substantial to address the “appalling and dangerous” situation facing people living on Skid Row, the notorious epicenter of homelessness in downtown LA.
“The storms last week, and the lack of preparation, seems to have pushed Judge Carter over the top,” said Daniel Conway, policy adviser for the alliance, a coalition of service providers, small-business owners, residents and community leaders.
“We are saving lives by bringing more people indoors at a faster pace now than we ever have before. The city is on schedule to meet the terms of our agreement with the county, which the court has approved, and we're continuing to push for more progress with every available resource," said a statement from Alex Comisar, press secretary for Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Garcetti appreciates the judge's work “to help us house our homeless neighbors as quickly as possible," the statement said.
During his downtown visit on Friday, Carter witnessed the impact of the wet, cold weather on homeless residents, “particularly elderly women and victims of mental illness, at least one of whom was naked and suffering from hypothermia,” he wrote.
Andy Bales, the CEO of the homeless shelter Union Rescue Mission who was with the judge during the tour, said what they saw was “despicable.”
“These ladies were suffering out there in the rain, in the cold. Some didn't have shoes,” Bales said Monday.
Citing the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring mental health and substance abuse issues among those living on the streets, the judge compared homelessness to “a significant natural disaster in Southern California with no end in sight.”
The judge has asked officials to outline the steps the city has taken and intends to take to tackle homelessness at the hearing Carter called for Thursday at the Downtown Women's Center, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for LA City Attorney Mike Feuer. The hearing will address whether the court should deploy remedies to deal with the crisis, the judge wrote.
Conway said possible actions include a consent decree, which if all parties agree would effectively end the lawsuit with a settlement giving Carter ultimate power to order the city and county to build shelters and provide services.
“There's a real possibility that Los Angeles' new Homeless Czar could be a federal judge,” Conway said.
A January 2020 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that there were more than 66,400 homeless people living in Los Angeles County — by far the largest single concentration in the state. That included more than 41,000 within the city limits. Both figures were up more than 12% from the previous year.
Carter noted that 1,383 homeless people died in the city and county of Los Angeles last year, a 32% increase from 2019.
In June, Carter approved a deal as part of the ongoing lawsuit that saw the city and county agreeing to provide housing for almost 7,000 homeless people who live near freeways and those over 65 or vulnerable to COVID-19.
Since that agreement little progress has been made and the judge on Sunday slammed local officials for their “apparent abdication of responsibility” to keep the streets safe. He added that the court “cannot allow the paralysis of the political process” to continue to endanger lives.
Bales said Union Rescue Mission, Councilman Kevin de Leon's office and others on Friday tried to find a place to immediately erect temporary rain shelters, but they ended up in conflict about possible locations with members of the mayor's staff.
“A turf war broke out right in front of our eyes,” he said.
At the end of the day a small number of hotel rooms were purchased to get some of the women out of the rain, said Pete Brown, a spokesman for de Leon. The councilman will attend Thursday's hearing, Brown said.
Bales said he hopes Carter will use the full power of the court to address the crisis.
“Absolutely he should act,” Bates said. “We need immediate shelter and safety. And politicians aren't getting the job done.”