Using new law, L.A. City Council bans homeless encampments at 54 spots

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FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2019, file photo homeless shelter from a storm passing over downtown Los Angeles at their encampment along an offramp to the 110 freeway. A federal judge has ordered Los Angeles city and county to move thousands of homeless people who are living near freeways, saying their health is at risk from pollution and the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
People shelter from a storm passing over downtown Los Angeles at their encampment along an offramp to the 110 Freeway in 2019. The L.A. City Council on Wednesday approved a ban on camping at certain locations. (Richard Vogel / Associated Press)

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday approved a ban on camping at certain locations, in the first use of new laws that passed over the summer.

In a 12-2 vote, the council outlawed sitting, sleeping and lying at 54 locations in three of its districts. Amid contentious debate over the summer, the council enacted new rules regulating sitting, sleeping and storing property near fire hydrants, building entrances, driveways, libraries, parks, elementary schools and several other locations.

The council also asked that resources for outreach to homeless people in these locations be expanded and for city departments to draft new procedures to ensure people sleeping on the sidewalk aren't forced to move without proper notice. Though the new procedures have been drafted, the city has yet to hire the staff to provide more outreach to accompany the new rules.

That worried several council members, who said their colleagues were rushing the process and should wait until there were more resources to help people.

"I am certain that a lot of work has been done, but it still isn't to the level of what we committed to as a body," said Councilman Mike Bonin, who helped engineer the removal of campers from Venice Beach over the summer.

The passage of the resolutions comes at a time when elected officials are reckoning with the growth of large encampments during the pandemic and attempting to balance the anger of housed constituents with a need to create more permanent and interim housing options for people who often have nowhere to go but the street.

Large encampments at Echo Park Lake, the Venice boardwalk and MacArthur Park, and the varying ways they've been cleared, have dominated headlines as the city enters a political season in which homelessness will be the top issue on the minds of voters. For many council members, using the new laws to remove encampments is also about showing voters that they're responding to their needs and keeping sidewalks clean and clear.

Along with Councilwoman Nithya Raman, who opposed the anti-camping rules, Bonin voted against the motion to ban camping at locations in the districts of Councilmen Paul Krekorian, Joe Buscaino and Bob Blumenfield. The three members had submitted resolutions a month ago giving specific locations where they'd like to see signs posted telling people where it's prohibited to pitch a tent.

"Why did we set up this whole system if we were just going to authorize the posting of signs before we've done all the work?" Bonin asked.

He credited some members, including Blumenfield, for doing ample outreach in their districts but said this was still a cart-before-the-horse approach. Now that the resolutions have passed, there will be a 14-day period after the signs are posted during which "outreach teams will continue to engage anyone remaining on the site," according to a city report about the process. It's unclear whether all the steps of this process have been followed to this point.

The total cost for signage at the proposed locations could be close to $2 million as more locations are approved in the coming weeks and months, according to city documents.

The 54 locations approved Wednesday are fewer than half of those under consideration. City officials cited staffing issues and material shortages as two of several reasons why it may take a substantial amount of time to make all the signs.

Other members have been enthusiastic about this process. They say it would limit the involvement of law enforcement, require 14 days' notice that camping is barred in a particular location and seek to have homeless people comply voluntarily. They also believe that it would help Angelenos regain public spaces occupied by tents, furniture or other possessions.

Blumenfield spoke Wednesday about the locations where he's seeking to ban sleeping. Nearly all are underpasses beneath the 101 Freeway in his west San Fernando Valley district. Blumenfield said the underpasses are the only connection between residential areas of his district and streets with shops and restaurants.

Blumenfield said he regularly heard from residents who complained about having to walk in traffic just to navigate the encampments. So over the last year, he's focused on creating more shelter space in his district, which he acknowledges has the fewest homeless people in the city. People took outreach workers up on offers of housing or shelter, he said.

Now, with the exception of one underpass, the streets are clear. He wants to keep it that way.

"I have fewer homeless people in my district than anyone here, but it's still the No. 1 issue," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can to get folks served, to get them housed but also to keep our communities safe and clean and to make sure that dangerous and critical corridors are … not subject to encampments."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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