A federal judge said Wednesday he is pondering an order to force people experiencing homelessness to stop living under and around Los Angeles freeways, citing health and safety concerns.
“This isn’t a forced displacement,” U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said at an off-site federal court hearing in downtown Los Angeles.
Carter ordered representatives of the city and county of Los Angeles to provide information by Friday about how soon the forced moves could take place as “humanely” as possible.
He pointed out the numerous risks the homeless face when sleeping under and adjacent to freeways, ramps and underpasses.
The question of how to handle the large number of people living beneath downtown freeways is one of the thorniest issues to come up during several months of talks stemming from a lawsuit seeking to house thousands of people in danger of contracting COVID-19 while sleeping on the streets.
The suit filed in March by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of Skid Row-area business owners, formerly homeless and disabled city dwellers, accuses the city and county of Los Angeles of not doing enough to address the homeless problem downtown, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other problematic issues center on which publicly-owned properties near Skid Row are available for potential use as homeless shelters. City attorneys told Carter that they are compiling a list of all city-owned properties that could be used for permanent and/or interim housing or safe parking for those living in cars or campers.
Urged on by Carter at a series of hearings, city and county officials have moved quickly to get as many people as possible off the streets. According to defendants in the suit, there are now 26 recreation centers in parks across the city that are serving as emergency shelters, providing over 1,000 shelter beds during the COVID-19 crisis.
At a previous hearing, the judge expressed strong support for Project Roomkey, in which the defendants and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — which is working with the city — are contracting, operating and maintaining thousands of hotel and motel beds for “high-risk” homeless people.
Carter has pronounced Roomkey “a success. It may be incremental. It may not be fast enough. You’re not going to hear from this court a complaint this far about the speed.”
The Hotel Association of Los Angeles announced that more than 300 Los Angeles hotels have volunteered over 30,000 rooms to the L.A. County Department of Public Health and other agencies as temporary shelter to support the region’s coronavirus response.
About 4,000 rooms are under contract, including more than 400 rooms at an unnamed large downtown hotel, to protect and isolate population segments vulnerable to the coronavirus. An additional 2,500 rooms are working through the contracting process as the county ensures proper staffing of trained personnel, indemnification for properties and insurance and liability coverage, according to the association.
Attorneys for the defendants wrote in court papers that the county is “working vigorously to defend its right to administer Project Roomkey throughout the Los Angeles region” in light of objections from various cities.
A Superior Court judge last month granted a temporary restraining order preventing the city of Norwalk from applying an emergency moratorium to prohibit a 210-bed hotel from being used for the project.
Most urgently, some rooms are being repurposed for use by high-risk people, defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as those homeless over 65 years old or those who have certain underlying health conditions, including respiratory problems, compromised immunities, chronic disease, and who require emergency isolated shelter as a social distancing measure.
Another focus of settlement talks involves the availability of safe and legal overnight parking sites within the city of Los Angeles for those living in their cars or campers. Many of those living in campers have fashioned makeshift communities beneath downtown freeways and refuse to move, according to court papers.
With 18 current safe parking sites within the city for a maximum of 406 vehicles, including cars, vans and RVs, the city has reviewed more than 300 parking lots owned by the city Department of Transportation, and several were identified for potential use as safe parking sites, city and county representatives said.
Over the past few months, Carter has managed to have dozens of new sanitation facilities installed in Skid Row, before turning to the problem of safe camper parking for those living in their vehicles in a 50-block area in downtown Los Angeles and other issues related to Project Roomkey.
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