Los Angeles passes measure limiting homeless encampments

The Los Angeles City Council passed a sweeping anti-camping measure Thursday to remove widespread homeless encampments that have become an eyesore across the city.

The measure was billed as a compassionate approach to get people off streets and restore access to public spaces in the city with nation’s second-largest homeless population, though critics said it would criminalize the problem. It wouldn’t be enforced until someone has turned down an offer of shelter.

“I can’t think of any reason why we would not unite in support of what the people of Los Angeles want us to do,” said Councilman Paul Krekorian, coauthor of the measure. “Restore order to our streets, while also uplifting and providing services to those in need.”

Among other limits, the ordinance that passed 13-2 would ban sitting, lying, sleeping or storing personal property on sidewalks that block handicap access, near driveways, fire hydrants and near schools, day care centers, libraries, homeless shelters and parks.

The measure, which won’t take effect until a second vote later this month, replaces a more punitive anti-camping proposal that had stalled in a committee. Under the ordinance approved, police would only get involved if there’s a crime, and people who resist leaving would be fined rather than arrested for a misdemeanor.

The majority of callers during a limited public comment period spoke in support of the measure, describing homeless encounters that included assaults, break-ins and one explaining how children walking to school are forced into a busy street to avoid tents that crowd sidewalks.

People who opposed the measure, including a couple who used profanity, said it lacked compassion and would criminalize a problem the city has failed to solve.

The meeting was closed to the public because of coronavirus restrictions, but a group of advocates for the homeless protested outside City Hall.

Pete White of the LA Community Action Network said the measure is loosely written to allow broad interpretation for enforcement and will make most of the city off-limits to people living on the street.

“Draconian is definitely the correct word,” he said. “It’s impossible to comply.”

White said that an ordinance that limited where people could park RVs and sleep in cars overnight left little more than 5% of streets available for parking.

California is home to more than a quarter of the nation’s homeless people, according to federal data, and it has reached a crisis point in many cities. There are deep disagreements in how to solve a problem that goes beyond economics and is often complicated by mental illness and addiction issues that require treatment and can make people resistant to accepting shelter.

The city of Los Angeles has an estimated homeless population of more than 40,000, which is second only to New York’s.

Encampments have steadily grown over several years and often sprawl entire blocks. They can include barbecues, sofas, recliner chairs and even a shower. Many are crammed with piles of belongings, scavenged junk and covered in tarps.

A federal judge directed the city of LA to offer housing to thousands of homeless people on notorious Skid Row by this fall, though the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put that on hold.