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L.A. cracks down on homeless encampments near schools

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday voted to ban homeless people from pitching tents within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers during a noisy gathering that saw protesters shout down council members and eventually halted the gathering.

The new restrictions, passed by a vote of 11-3, dramatically expand the number of places where sleeping and camping are off-limits. And they come amid a furious debate over how the city should respond to camps that have taken root in many parts of the city.

Viewers repeatedly chanted “Shut it up” as Councilor Joe Buscaino, a longtime advocate for increased enforcement, tried to speak out in favor of the restrictions. Council President Nury Martinez then interrupted the meeting for more than an hour to allow the police to clear the room.

After the spectators left, the council members reconvened, discussed the measure and voted.

“I think people wanted to shut down this place this morning and stop us from doing the very work that we were all elected to do,” Martinez said ahead of the vote. “And that, I think, is incredibly disturbing.”

Under the new restrictions, people would be banned from sitting, sleeping, lying down or storing property within 500 feet of any public and private school, not just the few dozen chosen by the council last year.

Councilor Marqueece Harris-Dawson, representing South Los Angeles, voted against the restrictions, telling reporters they would move the city toward an “inhumanity that resides among the city’s citizens.”

Councilor Mike Bonin, another opponent of the restrictions, said city leaders should instead devote their energies to improving programs that help homeless Angelenos, such as those that help people with housing vouchers secure housing.

“We need to have a relentless, single-minded focus on getting people indoors,” said Bonin, who represents coastal neighborhoods from Los Angeles International Airport north to Pacific Palisades.

A second vote will be required next week. Bonin predicted the changes would result in a tenfold increase in the number of sites subject to enforcement, from more than 200 to around 2,000. The city’s supporting documents for the proposal did not provide a clear number showing how many locations would be affected.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials told the Times that about 750 school sites are within city limits, a number that does not include private or parochial schools. Nearly 1,000 commercial daycares are registered with the city’s tax office, though it’s not clear if all of those locations would fall under the city’s new law.

Tuesday’s vote came more than two months after Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho made a surprise personal appearance before council members to call for the new restrictions. Parents and school staff have also spoken out in favor of the changes, saying they have observed erratic or even violent behavior around or on the LA Unified campus.

Martha Alvarez, who oversees government relations for the school district, told the council that LA Unified found 120 campuses with camps in the past year.

“These conditions are a public health hazard,” she said. “They are unsafe and traumatic for students, families and staff entering school grounds.”

Councilor Joe Buscaino also spoke out, saying he’s already been working to create more beds for the homeless across the city using a variety of strategies.

“I have supported Bridge Home accommodation. I’ve supported tiny homes, Project Roomkey, Project Homekey, and sustainable supportive living,” Buscaino said. “But what I don’t support are drug dens near our schools, parks, or anywhere kids congregate.”

A woman walks past a Hollywood homeless camp with two school-age teenagers

Sarah Tindall, centre, walks past a homeless camp near Larchmont Charter School with school children in August 2021.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The new school year starts on August 15th.

Opponents of the proposal have repeatedly argued that the council’s restrictions would effectively prohibit poverty, which would result in the deaths of homeless Angelenos. Banning encampments near schools, they said, would simply push people and their belongings a block or two away.

“There are a lot of people who are struggling right now and we should help them,” said Andrew Graebner, who appeared before the council.

The new restrictions come as city officials phase out one of the signature programs set up to help homeless Angelenos during the COVID-19 pandemic: Project Roomkey, which turned multi-story hotels into makeshift shelters.

These facilities allowed the city to bring far more people indoors than before, at a time when the community’s shelter system, where many people sleep in a single room, was forced to work well below capacity under social distancing guidelines.

The Mayfair Hotel, which provided 252 rooms under the scheme, recently ended its participation in the scheme. Downtown LA Grand Hotel and Hollywood’s Highland Gardens Hotel, which together provided 553 rooms, are scheduled to cease operations as Project Roomkey locations by the end of the month, according to Brian Buchner, the city’s homelessness coordinator.

The Airtel Plaza Hotel, which has provided 237 rooms, will end its participation in the program on September 30th.

Buchner said there were “active discussions” at City Hall and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority about extending the deadline at one or more of those facilities.

Tuesday’s vote represents a change in the city’s approach to enforcing its anti-camping law, reducing the discretion of individual council members and introducing a broader policy. That’s a big change from last summer, when supporters of the law described it as a narrow and targeted measure, with enforcement of service offerings accompanied by outreach staff.

Last year, permanent metal signs with exit deadlines for the homeless were put up in more than 200 places, including 33 schools or day-care centers. In some places, tents and makeshift shelters have been left standing weeks or months after the enforcement deadline as outreach workers struggled to persuade people to move voluntarily.

Though some sites are now devoid of tents and camps, others had more people living on the sidewalk than when outreach workers first surveyed the sites.

City and county officials and homeless service providers previously told The Times that insufficient outreach staff and a lack of transitional shelters have hampered implementation of the law.

Opponents of the council’s homelessness strategy have repeatedly called for restrictions on sidewalk camping to be lifted. Some of those critics are now front runners in the November 8 elections.

Accountant Kenneth Mejia, front runner in the race to succeed City Controller Ron Galperin, said The new rules would close about a fifth of the city’s sidewalks to homeless people. He warned that the restrictions would simply push homeless people to other nearby blocks.

Councilor Paul Koretz, nearly 20 points behind Mejia last month, voted in favor of the new law.

The council’s new anti-warehouse law has quickly become a topic in other competitions. Civil rights attorney Faisal Gill is now running to succeed City Atty. Mike Feuer has previously vowed not to enforce the law, saying it is unconstitutional and being struck down by the 9th Circuit.

Gill’s opponent, lawyer Hydee Feldstein Soto, declined to comment on the measure when contacted by The Times.

“The validity, interpretation and enforceability of the [anti-encampment] The ordinance will certainly come before the next LA City Attorney,” she said in a statement. “And if I’m the city attorney, I want the opportunity to consult with my clients — the LA City Council — before accepting a permanent position.”

One city-wide competition where there is some consensus on the council’s approach is the mayoral race. US Rep. Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso, both running for mayor, have both spoken out in favor of the restrictions on encampments near schools and daycares.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-02/l-a-cracks-down-on-homeless-encampments-outside-public-schools-daycare-centers L.A. cracks down on homeless encampments near schools

Alley Einstein

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