LA cracks down on homeless encampments close to colleges

The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to ban homeless people from pitching tents within 500 feet of schools and day care centers during a raucous meeting in which protesters shouted down council members and at one point brought the meeting to a halt.

The new restrictions, approved by an 11-3 vote, dramatically increase the number of places where sleeping and camping are prohibited. And they are fueling fierce debate about how the city should respond to the encampments that have taken hold in many parts of the city.

Audience members repeatedly chanted “turn it off” as Councilman Joe Buscaino, a longtime proponent of tougher enforcement, tried to advocate for the restrictions. Council President Nury Martinez then suspended the meeting for more than an hour so police could clear the room.

After members of the audience left, council members reconvened to discuss the measure and vote.

“I think the people this morning were going to shut this place down and stop us from doing the job we were all elected to do,” Martinez said before the vote. “And that, I think, is incredibly troubling.”

Under the new restrictions, people would be prohibited from sitting, sleeping, lying down or keeping property within 500 feet of every public and private school, not just a few dozen that have been selected by the board over the past year.

Councilwoman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South Los Angeles, voted against the restrictions, telling reporters that they would lead the city toward “the inhumanity that lies with the citizens of the city.”

Councilman Mike Bonin, another opponent of the restrictions, said city leaders should focus their energies on improving programs that help homeless Angelenos, such as helping people with housing vouchers secure an apartment.

“We have to have a constant, singular focus on getting people indoors,” said Bonin, who represents coastal areas from Los Angeles International Airport north to the Pacific Palisades.

Councilwoman Nithya Raman, whose district includes the Hollywood Hills, also voted against the proposal. A second and final vote will be held next week.

Bonin predicted that the changes would increase the number of areas subject to enforcement roughly tenfold, from more than 200 to about 2,000. The city’s proposal supporting documents did not provide a clear figure for how many parcels would be covered.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials told The Times that there are about 750 schools within the city limits, not including private or parochial schools. Nearly 1,000 commercial daycares are registered with the city’s finance office, though it’s unclear whether all of those locations will be covered by the city’s new law.

Tuesday’s vote comes more than two months after Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho made a surprise personal appearance to board members. request new restrictions. Parents and school staff also advocated for the changes, saying they’ve seen erratic or even violent behavior on or near school campuses.

Martha Alvarez, who oversees government relations for the school district, told the board that LA Unified has found 120 campuses with camps in the past year.

“These conditions pose a public health risk,” she said. “They are unsafe and traumatizing students, families and staff when they enter school campuses.

Buscaino also spoke in favor, saying he’s already working to open more homeless beds across the city.

“I supported the Bridge Home shelters. I supported tiny houses, Project Roomkey, Project Homekey, permanent housing,” Buscaino said. “However, I am not in favor of drug bars near our schools, parks or anywhere children congregate.”

A woman and students walk past a homeless encampment near Larchmont Charter School in 2021. August.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The new academic year will begin on August 15.

Opponents of the proposal have repeatedly argued that the council restrictions would effectively outlaw the poverty that is killing Angelenos who are homeless. Banning encampments near schools would simply push people and their belongings a block or two away, they said.

“There are a lot of people who are struggling right now and we should be helping them,” said Andrew Graebner, who appeared before the council.

The council’s action also drew opposition from PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, which builds low-income housing with supportive services. Tyler Renner, a spokesman for the organization, said the restrictions would waste time and city resources.

Enforcing anti-camping ordinances … only pushes people away and makes it harder for trained outreach workers to regain trust,” he said in a statement.

The new restrictions come as city officials are phasing out one of the signature programs created to help the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic: Project Roomkey, which turned high-rise hotels into temporary shelters.

The facilities allowed the city to bring far more people indoors than before, at a time when the shelter system, where many people sleep in one room, had to operate well below social distancing guidelines.

The Mayfair Hotel, which provided 252 rooms under the scheme, recently closed. The LA Grand Hotel downtown and the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood, which had a total of 553 rooms, will stop serving as Project Roomkey sites at the end of the month, according to Brian Buchner, the city’s homelessness coordinator.

Hotel Airtel Plaza, which has provided 237 rooms, intends to end its participation in the program on September 30.

Buchner said City Hall and Los Angeles Homeless Services are in “active discussions” to extend the deadline at one or more of those facilities.

Tuesday’s vote represents the city’s approach to enforcing the anti-camping law, reducing the discretion of individual council members and establishing a broader policy. That’s a stark contrast from last summer, when supporters of the law described it as a narrow and targeted measure, with enforcement accompanied by proposals from aid workers.

Over the past year, permanent metal signs setting deadlines for homeless people to leave have been posted in more than 200 locations, 33 of them in schools or day care centers. In some places, tents and temporary shelters remained for weeks or months as aid workers tried to convince people to move voluntarily.

While some sites are now empty of tents and campsites, others later had more people living on the sidewalk than when staff first assessed the sites.

City and county officials, as well as homeless service providers, previously told The Times that an insufficient number of relief workers and a lack of temporary housing options have hindered implementation of the law.

Opponents of the council’s homelessness strategy have repeatedly called for restrictions on pavement camping to be lifted. Some of those critics are now leading the charge on November 8. in the upcoming elections.

Accountant Kenneth Mejia, the front-runner in the race to replace City Comptroller Ron Galperin, said the new rules would allow homeless people to ride on about one-fifth of the city’s sidewalks. He has repeatedly criticized the city’s anti-camping law on social media, which focuses not only on schools and daycare centers but also requires sidewalks to have 36 inches of wheelchair space.

Councilman Paul Koretz, who trailed Mejia by nearly 20 percentage points last month, voted in favor of the new law.

The new anti-camping law is also a problem for other competitions. Civil rights attorney Faisal Gill, now running to succeed City Atty. Mike Feuer previously vowed not to enforce the ordinance, saying it was unconstitutional and would be overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gill’s opponent, attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, declined to take a position on the measure when contacted by The Times.

“Validity, interpretation and enforceability of the law [anti-encampment] the ordinance will definitely go to the next LA City Attorney,” she said in a statement. “And if I’m the city’s attorney, I’d like to be able to consult with my clients — the Los Angeles City Council — before taking a permanent position.”

One citywide contest where the council’s approach is being negotiated is the mayoral race. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso, both running for mayor, have advocated restrictions on camps near schools and day care centers.

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