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Attempt to Settle Skid Row Suit Fails

Rebuffing Villaraigosa, the council rejects a plan to let the homeless sleep on sidewalks at night.

September 21, 2006|Steve Hymon and Richard Winton

Defying Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday rejected a legal settlement that would have allowed homeless people to sleep on the sidewalks of skid row at night and permitted police to remove them during the day.

The council instead voted 10 to 3 in closed session to continue the legal defense of the city's ban on sidewalk sleeping, saying a compromise with the American Civil Liberties Union might cause some of skid row's problems to spread to other neighborhoods.

Bratton and Villaraigosa had pushed for a settlement, largely because the ACLU's lawsuit has stymied their ability to crack down on crime on downtown's skid row, where thousands of homeless camp most nights despite the ban.

The settlement would have allowed the homeless to sleep on skid row from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The deal came five months after a U.S. appeals court ruled in favor of the ACLU, saying that arresting people for sleeping on sidewalks was cruel and unusual punishment because the city had too few shelter beds and the homeless had nowhere else to go.

Several council members said Wednesday they worried the settlement would allow the ACLU to make the same argument in other parts of the city, setting a precedent that could result in people sleeping on sidewalks in Hollywood, Venice and elsewhere.

"We will not bend to a legal decision that everyone knows is not appropriate in this city," Councilman Bernard C. Parks said.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes much of skid row, led the charge against the deal, along with downtown business and development interests. They argued that rather than helping clean up skid row, the settlement could make conditions worse by drawing more homeless people from the surrounding area.

The council's action not only forestalled a resolution of the dispute with the ACLU, it also was a rare rebuff of the mayor. Since Villaraigosa was elected last year, council members have been more inclined to court his favor than reject his initiatives.

After the vote, Bratton said he remained committed to improving skid row but warned that the collapse of the settlement makes the job more difficult.

"I am disappointed in that if the settlement had been agreed upon, it would have given me tools to immediately move forward. With the lawsuit we have some uncertainty," he said.

The chief said he agreed the deal was not perfect, but he said it would have given his officers the ability to keep the sidewalks clear of homeless encampments during the day.

"I fully appreciate it wasn't the best, but it was not the worst," he said.

The decision by the council probably means that the city's law will be in the courts for months and possibly years. The April ruling was by a three-member panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The next step would be to have the case heard by a 15-judge panel of the court.

"We'll defend it all the way to the United States Supreme Court," said Ramona Ripston, president of the Southern California chapter of the ACLU.

Wednesday's developments are the latest in the city's long history of trying to improve the grim landscape of skid row. People on both sides of the lawsuit believe that the council's action Wednesday avoids the real issue: the city's need for more shelters and social services for the homeless.

Besides voting to appeal the decision, the council asked the city attorney's office to issue guidelines to allow the police to begin patrolling skid row for a 90-day trial period. One of the guidelines will probably echo the part of the settlement that allows homeless to sleep on skid row at night.

But it remains unclear how much of the settlement terms the city can expect to implement while still fighting the ACLU lawsuit.

Aides in Villaraigosa's office said several key aspects of the settlement may now be lost because they won't be part of the guidelines or withstand legal scrutiny. One of those was a provision that forbids the homeless at all times from sleeping within 10 feet of doorways to businesses, residences or loading docks.

Bratton said the council has asked the city attorney's office for an opinion on how much the LAPD can do on skid row as the ACLU lawsuit is appealed.

"I want to make sure we do nothing to violate the intention of the court," he said.

The chief said he also wants to move forward with a new strategy. While the ACLU decision allows the homeless to sleep on sidewalks, Bratton said he wants the council to now pass an ordinance making it illegal to use camping gear on sidewalks.

"There are other cities with such ordinances which have stood up to constitutional scrutiny," he said.

He also said that he plans to deploy an additional 50 officers to patrol skid row.

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