Officials will fight judge's order to shelter homeless people on Los Angeles' skid row

Alicia Victoria Lozano
·5 min read

LOS ANGELES — County leaders say they'll push back against a federal judge's order to house all the people experiencing homelessness in downtown's skid row, where tents and encampments butt up against pricey lofts, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Los Angeles County filed a notice to appeal the ruling Wednesday, a day after U.S. District Judge David O. Carter slammed officials for their failure to address the region's burgeoning homelessness crisis, said Skip Miller, the lawyer representing the county.

It will also ask that Carter's order be suspended, citing judicial overreach into an issue that should be handled by the city and the county.

"Deciding how to spend taxpayers' money and deliver services to people experiencing homelessness is a legislative, not a judicial, function," Miller said in an emailed statement. "The County remains committed to its course of urgent action outside of court addressing this complex societal issue with the City and its other partners."

Carter ordered the city and the county to find shelter for all women and children on skid row within 90 days, and he said every person experiencing homelessness in the area must have shelter by mid-October.

Officials believe thousands of unhoused people are living on skid row. Last year, more than 1,400 people in the area were temporarily housed, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Carter also told the city auditor to examine all public money spent in recent years to combat homelessness, including funds from a 2016 bond measure voters approved to create 10,000 housing units over a decade.

"All of the rhetoric, promises, plans, and budgeting cannot obscure the shameful reality of this crisis — that year after year, there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year, more homeless Angelenos die on the streets," Carter wrote in his 110-page ruling.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti promised this week to pour $1 billion toward solving the crisis, which has plagued California and especially Los Angeles for generations.

The streets of skid row have long languished in an urban quagmire of trash, tents and neglect. Every day, shelters and organizations work to temporarily house people living on the streets, but every day more people fall into homelessness. On average, 207 people are rehoused daily in the county, but 227 people are pushed into homelessness, said Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority, an agency created by the city and the county.

Nationwide, about 568,000 people are experiencing homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. More than a quarter of them are in California, or about 151,000 people. Of those, more than 66,000 live in Los Angeles County, local officials say.

"We as a society have become desensitized and even have normalized homelessness," Marston said this week during a state of homelessness address. "We have convinced ourselves that the basic human need of shelter or housing is something that has to be earned or deserved, and that's what we have to stop, that's what we need to change."

Skid row comprises a large concrete swath of downtown Los Angeles, encompassing about 50 blocks of businesses, homeless services and the unhoused. In the late 1800s, the neighborhood became a popular stopping point for migrant workers looking for seasonal employment. A transient community emerged in the shadows of the Southern Pacific Railroad passenger terminal, near cheap lodging and brothels for those passing through.

At its inception, white men from Europe or other U.S. states were the majority of workers flooding into Los Angeles, according to a report in January by UCLA looking at the history of homelessness in the region. Increasing homelessness and poverty attracted a heavy police presence, and by 1905, 98 percent of those incarcerated for public order offenses were white men, according to the report.

That started to change in the following years as more people descended on skid row looking for cheap rent and train access. City officials condemned the neighborhood and shuttered hundreds of low-rent housing options from 1910 to 1913, forcing people out of their lodgings and into the streets. The Great Depression aggravated the already worsening conditions, followed by housing and employment discrimination that disproportionately affected Black people during the Jim Crow era and beyond.

Today, Black people account for about 8 percent of Los Angeles County's total population but 34 percent of its unhoused, according to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. This year's count was canceled because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

"We can end homelessness," said Marston, of the homeless services authority. "How do we know this? Because we created it. Policy choices and underinvestment brought us to where we are today."

She pointed to stagnant incomes, rising home prices and divestments in affordable housing and mental health resources as reasons Los Angeles became a capital for homelessness. Mass incarceration also drives homelessness, she said, with about 60 percent of unhoused people having served jail or prison time.

During the Great Depression and in the decades following, skid row became a hub of social services for people experiencing homelessness. Separated from the rest of the city and the county by large freeways and rows of warehouses, skid row is a city within a city that has continued to grow over the decades.

"Like Abraham Lincoln's call to action in his Gettysburg address, it is for us 'to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced,'" Carter wrote in his ruling. "Let us pick up that flag, and have the courage of those who fought so long ago, to act so that we can become a better nation and people."