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Deal on sidewalk camping reached

The homeless can sleep on L.A. streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. with certain restrictions, but a city official plans to seek a new ban.

October 11, 2007|Steve Hymon and David Zahniser | Times Staff Writers

Even as Los Angeles officials announced Wednesday that they were settling a lawsuit with advocates for the homeless over a city law that prohibits people from sleeping on sidewalks, downtown Councilwoman Jan Perry vowed to pursue a law that would forbid such camping.

The legal settlement involves a 2003 lawsuit brought by skid row residents who complained they were being arrested for sleeping on sidewalks, despite having nowhere else to go. Under the new deal, the homeless can sleep on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. anywhere in the city as long as they do not block access to doorways or driveways or completely block the sidewalk.

If a homeless person blocks an entrance or the sidewalk, police first must issue a warning and then give the person time to move. Until now, police were allowed to remove the homeless from sidewalks in neighborhoods outside downtown, although they rarely have done so.

Under the settlement's terms, the city can enforce its overnight sidewalk sleeping ban only if it builds 1,250 units of supportive housing for the homeless, with half those units downtown. City officials said such action was unlikely to take place for at least three to five years.

The lawsuit was brought by six homeless people who alleged that the city's enforcement of the sidewalk sleeping ban was harassment. But the deal drew criticism from downtown business leaders because it allows sidewalk sleeping to continue.

"People eat, live, sleep and defecate in the same place on our sidewalks -- what's good about that?" said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn.

Perry, who represents most of the 50-square-block area known as skid row, resisted efforts last year to settle the lawsuit. The difference this time around, she said, was the provision allowing the homeless to sleep overnight anywhere in the city, not just in skid row.

"I felt that whatever applied to this community should apply to all communities in Los Angeles," said Perry, who called the settlement a "decent outcome for now."

But Perry said she wants to create a new anti-camping ordinance that could withstand a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped argue the case against the ban.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said her group would oppose any anti-camping law.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April 2006 that the city was woefully short of overnight shelter space and said arresting a homeless person for sleeping on the sidewalk was "cruel and unusual punishment."

Judges also wrote in their decision that Los Angeles' sidewalk sleeping law was more restrictive than those in most other cities and amounted to criminalizing homelessness.

Both the city and homeless advocates agreed to ask the appeals court to vacate its decision. If the court declines, the settlement will be negated.

Since the 9th Circuit's ruling, the Los Angeles Police Department has been enforcing the ban only during the day.

Ripston said the settlement would force the city to build supportive housing where the homeless can receive treatment for problems that led them to live on the streets.

"Like all settlements, it's not perfect," Ripston said. "But it's a case that started with a request for shelter beds. We're getting a lot more than we asked for."

The council unanimously approved the settlement Tuesday in a closed-door meeting, a move that infuriated downtown business leaders who had followed the issue for years. Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn., said that the council pursued a "stealth" strategy that would leave downtown to cope with the brunt of the homeless crisis.

"It's impossible to believe that they really wanted our input," said Schatz, whose group represents developers and business interests.

For one businessman, the settlement also raises the prospect that the homeless will increasingly spread beyond skid row, bounded by 3rd, 7th, Main and Alameda streets, and begin setting up tents and boxes on sidewalks in front of downtown's increasing number of late-night restaurants, as well as the newly opened Ralphs supermarket and Staples Center.

"How would you like people setting up tents in front of your house with no bathroom facilities? It's going to be a health hazard," said Peter Zen, the owner's representative for the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. "And every morning, after they clear out their tents, who's going to clean up after them?"

The LAPD last year increased the number of officers deployed to skid row.

Police Chief William J. Bratton said that effort had greatly reduced crime there but also had pushed homeless to other parts of the city.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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