Opinion: Encampments [Not Homelessness], and What We Can Do

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Most of the tents have been cleared from the Venice Ocean Walk. A reader wrote “I guess they think it’s better that they pollute the ocean.”

(Editor’s note: This July 25 op-ed piece by Julie Milligan is reprinted by permission from the Westside Current.)

People throughout Los Angeles are both outraged and confused by the dangerous and dirty conditions of our sidewalks and streets, our parks, and in and around Venice Beach.

How could $6 billion taxpayer dollars have been spent on ‘homelessness’ in the last decade with little to no progress to show for it? The degradation of our public spaces, together with the waste of our limited resources is deeply frustrating and heartbreaking. Yet, we are on track for our public spaces to get exponentially worse until our next elections [still 16 months away] if something isn’t done now.

The good news is that with a few simple actions NOW from each of us, together we may be able to change course from this destructive race to the bottom.

First, a brief recent history of the laws, rulings and practices regarding our shared public space:

In March of 2016, in response to outcry over encampments that blocked sidewalks, etc. the LA City Council adopted LAMC 56.11, an ordinance that primarily required tents to be taken down during daylight hours [6 a.m.-9 p.m.], and that a person’s belongings on public property be limited to what could fit in a 60 gallon container, excluding operational bicycles, constructed tents, wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, etc.

The city could seize and destroy ‘bulky items’ [those not fitting in the 60 gallon container], but had to give at least 24 hour notice of clean ups. Other items, if seized, were required to be held for 90 days before being destroyed. As it turned out, most items collected under this ordinance by Los Angeles Sanitation have actually been trash, some of it the result of illegal dumping, and 85% of seized and stored items are never even picked up.

In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in a case known as BOISE, which applies to several western states [including California], that it is unconstitutional to enforce any criminal ordinance prohibiting sleeping on public property against a homeless person, on any night when no shelter had an available space and there is no alternative legal space for them to sleep.

It is important to note that the BOISE case says nothing about regulating tents, personal property, bulky items, garbage, etc, nor does it say that permanent housing must be offered in order to enforce rules on camping in public space, yet BOISE has been widely misconstrued to suit the agendas of various ‘advocates’.

In 2016 in Los Angeles, homeless rights attorney Carol Sobol filed a lawsuit MITCHELL vs.City of LA called on behalf of four homeless persons from Skid Row and two Skid Row homeless advocacy organizations, seeking to limit the ability of Los Angeles Sanitation to Seize and destroy certain ‘bulky’ items of personal property.

In 2019, after a preliminary injunction was issued by US District Judge Otero that would reduce some of the powers of LAMC 56.11, in favor of homeless individuals to keep certain property, LA City Attorney Mike FEUER tried to settle the MITCHELL case.

However, settling the case on behalf of the taxpayers would require City Council approval, and the four members of the City Council’s Homeless & Poverty committee couldn’t agree to settle. Notably, City Councilman Joe Buscaino opposed the proposed settlement, arguing that it would worsen conditions on the streets of LA for the public, residents housed and unhoused, businesses, families, children ,the disabled, etc.

Unfortunately for the public, FEUER’s negotiations, and the subsequent deliberations of the entire City Council were kept secret, so the public wasn’t consulted to weigh in with their various Councilpersons. In the end, the majority of the City Council approved FEUER’s MARCH 19, 2019 settlement of MITCHELL, plus an award of $645,000 in attorney’s fees  paid to attorney Sobol, but the settlement ONLY APPLIED TO SKID ROW and surrounding areas, and only for 3 years.

Therefore, LAMC 56.11 was still a valid ordinance for all of the City of Los Angeles -except Skid Row- and to the extent it wasn’t enforced was solely the policy of the local Councilperson, LAPD or LA Bureau of Sanitation[Are you listening Venice?]

In the meantime, in 2019, attorney Shayla Myers of Legal Aid Foundation filed a Federal lawsuit known as GARCIA, also on behalf of several homeless individuals claiming that it was unconstitutional for the City of Los Angeles under authority of LAMC 56.11 to SEIZE and immediately DESTROY certain BULKY items (which they were keeping on PUBLIC property, ie a dog kennel, cart, pallets & foam).

In April 2020 Federal Judge Dale Fischer issued a preliminary injunction, which ruled that although the City can SEIZE and DETAIN bulky property, it can’t just immediately destroy the bulky items, simply because they are bulky and can’t fit in a 60 gallon container.

Justice Fischer was clear that although this restriction may slow the city’s efforts to keep our sidewalks and streets safe, clean, and to reduce crime, it should not and would not stop the process. {The Garcia injunction only prohibits enforcement of LAMC 56.11 (3)(i), and 56.11(10)(d)}. The GARCIA case is still pending, and it is not uncommon for ‘advocates’ to falsely claim that GARCIA prevents the seizure of bulky items, which it does not.

In February/March 2020, as COVID hit the West Coast, and following the CDC’s COVID guidelines, plus LA public health officials and the LA Board of Supervisor’s recommendations, on MARCH 17, 2020 the LA City Council imposed a moratorium on enforcement of the tents down during daylight portion LAMC 56.11. Mayor Eric Garcetti also used COVID as his reason to issue a moratorium on towing any vehicles that someone resided in, no matter how hazardous or damaging the vehicle and its inhabitants were to the community or environment. TO THIS DAY, despite the efforts and Motions of LA City Councilmen Buscaino and Lee,  blocking enforcement of LAMC 56.11, and Garcetti’s towing moratoriums, have not been rescinded. LAPD and LA Sanitation have their hands tied by Garcetti and 13 members of the City Council, property and violent crime is up, drug use is skyrocketing, fires have increased (60% are associated with encampments or illegally parked RVs), the sidewalks are blocked and filthy, parks have been destroyed (Echo park, Westchester park, Venice beach rec area), and the promises made to communities to limit dangerous encampments near Bridge shelters are broken daily.

After 15 months of almost no enforcement of rules governing tents or bulky items/trash in public space, in JUNE 2021 Councilman Joe Buscaino (and John Lee) made a Motion before the City Council to basically reinstate LAMC 56.11. Before his Motion could be heard, an Amended Motion was made by Mark Ridley-Thomas (and Paul Krekorian), which was intended by them to replace Buscaino’s motion, and which very significantly waters down any and all enforcement of the rules regarding encampments in public space, tents down during daylight, and the prohibition against bulky items that block sidewalks, cause blight, obscure crime and stolen property, etc. Whereas Buscaino’s motion did not allow camping in public space to individuals who had been offered shelter, the Ridley Thomas motion eliminated that important feature.

Our City Council appears to be divided into 3 factions:

Team 1. Restore most pre COVID regulation of public space, including tents down during daylight and limitations on how much ‘stuff’ one can keep on public property. No blocking of sidewalks, and no camping on public property if you are offered alternative shelter(Buscaino and Lee),

Team 2. Restore only a tiny bit of regulation of public space(and only with additional hearings, specific signage and notice of each and every public space to be regulated), no apparent regulation on amassing stuff on public property(Ridley Thomas and Krekorian);

Team 3. No regulation of any public space whatsoever [Bonin & Raman].

This is where we come in. Our City Council meets this week, and each member needs to hear from their constituents and supporters before it’s too late. It takes only a few minutes to let them know what you want. This is our City, our sidewalks, our streets, our parks, our beaches and these are our representatives. If they don’t listen to constituents, they need to be voted out. But that’s 16 months away, and we can’t wait that long.

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2 Responses to Opinion: Encampments [Not Homelessness], and What We Can Do

  1. howard yonet says:

    Ms Milligan apparently feels that only people who own a home or rent an apartment (where ever they might live) have the rights to parks, beachs ,streets and sidewalks and that even a long time citizen -resident loses all rights if they lose their residence due to loss of income stream. That is a very harsh and cruel interpretation of the role of a city and its citizency in America today.

  2. Eileen says:

    That’s a clearly present article of important City Council history regarding homeless issues. Thank you!

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