A federal judge Thursday blasted the city and county of Los Angeles for the “inertia” he believes has engulfed efforts to resolve a lawsuit over the homelessness crisis at a time when indigent death rates are spiraling and block-long encampments appear permanent fixtures of a city once known for palm trees, beaches and theme parks.

The hearing was called to discuss progress toward completion of a freeway overpasses and underpasses agreement, in which local officials promised in June 2020 to create 5,300 beds for homeless people over the following 10 months, rising to 6,000 over a year and a half.

It’s unclear if the timetable was met. As part of the agreement, the county said it would pay the city a one-time bonus of $8 million if the 5,300 new beds were open and ready for occupancy by April 16. While city attorneys insist the deadline had indeed been met, county lawyers argue that documentation supporting the city’s accounting is unreliable and the payout might be negated.

“I’m not certain the city has or has not met the goal,” U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing the case, said from the bench, telling participants that an audit and evidentiary hearing might be necessary, or he may withdraw the agreement entirely.

The response from plaintiffs’ attorney Elizabeth Mitchell, representing the LA Alliance for Human Rights: “more bureaucracy.”

It’s the latest snarl in the nearly two-year-old lawsuit brought in Los Angeles federal court by the association of downtown residents, homeless individuals and property owners demanding local government find shelter for the tens of thousands camping on sidewalks and near freeways.

Carter said that while the city and county argue about the few hundred beds that may or not have been ready on time, the homeless death rate “is still spiraling” and the rainy season is fast approaching.

“I’m not willing to work on your time schedules anymore — too many people are dying,” the judge told city and county attorneys. “The court is going to take some action. We’ve got so many people out there. It’s so desperate.”

Carter said he would not sign off on a “three- to five-year agreement” to find help for unhoused people.

“Start raising your sights,” he said, telling counsel that his primary concern was “you actually produce these units.”

As part of the 2 1/2-hour hearing, representatives of L.A. City Councilmen Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield and Mike Bonin stood at the podium to take questions from the bench.

As the court viewed a recent photo of a block-long encampment beneath a local freeway overpass, Carter said that he had visited the location some months ago and there appeared to be no change. He said he recalled watching as drug dealers pulled up in cars and sold narcotics to the homeless, “not knowing I’m a federal judge.”

He said in six or seven months, “it’s the same people” living there, despite testimony that new groups of transients had moved into the area.

An up-to-date count is expected next year when the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority conducts its 2022 homeless count between Jan. 25-27, the first since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled this year’s count.

According to the last tally, the county’s homeless population increased by 12.7% over the previous year, while the city of Los Angeles’ homeless population jumped by 14.2%. In January 2019, Los Angeles County had 58,936 people experiencing homelessness, but by January 2020 the number rose to 66,433. The city of Los Angeles counted 36,165 in 2019, and 41,290 in 2020.

The LA Alliance recently filed its amended lawsuit after an appeals court struck down Carter’s order that would’ve required the city and county to offer shelter and treatment to all unhoused people living in downtown’s 50-block Skid Row within six months.

The plaintiffs’ revised complaint addresses some of the procedural issues identified by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, such as the addition of an equal protection claim based on race, which were missing from the original March 2020 filing.

The latest version of the suit also updates purported factual allegations and adds plaintiffs. The changes conform the complaint to support claims that housing failures and racism have caused and exacerbated the homelessness crisis, and that the alleged lack of action by the city and county include a discriminatory component, according to L.A. Alliance.

Those arguments are aimed at securing a second injunction against the city and county to provide shelter and treatment to the unhoused on a strict timetable, and to start regulating public spaces such as sidewalks and parks.

“Our actions will break through the legal and bureaucratic logjam that has failed those on the streets and our neighborhoods,” the Alliance said in a recent letter to supporters.

“In addition, our parallel effort to build grassroots and coalition support … will put (local officials) in a corner, especially with the upcoming elections.”

The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 24.

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