LA cracks down on homeless camps near schools over booing from protesters

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The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to ban homeless people from pitching tents within 150 feet of schools and daycare centers, during a raucous rally where protesters yelled at councilors and at one point brought the meeting to a halt.

The new restrictions, approved by a vote of 11-3, dramatically expand the number of locations where sleeping and camping are prohibited. And they come amid a furious debate about how the city should respond to encampments that have sprung up in many parts of the city.

Members of the public repeatedly chanted “shut it down” as Councilman Joe Buscaino, a longtime advocate of increased enforcement, tried to speak up for the restrictions. Council President Nury Martinez then halted the meeting for more than an hour to allow police to clear the room.

After the audience had left, councilors reconvened, discussed the measure and voted.

“I think this morning people were planning to shut this place down and prevent us from doing the work we were all chosen to do,” Martinez said before the vote. “And that, I think, is incredibly disturbing.”

Under the new restrictions, people would be prohibited from sitting, sleeping, lying or storing property within 150 feet of any public and private school, not just the few dozen selected by the council in the past year.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South Los Angeles, voted against the restrictions, telling reporters they would move the city into an “inhumanity that lies among the citizens of the city.”

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 programs that help people with housing vouchers get an apartment.

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

Councilor Nithya Raman, whose district includes the Hollywood Hills, also voted against the proposal. A second and final vote is due next week.

Bonin predicted the changes would result in a roughly tenfold increase in the number of sites subject to enforcement, from more than 200 to about 2,000. The city’s supporting documents for the proposal did not provide a clear figure showing how many sites would be covered.

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Officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District told The Times that about 750 school sites are within city limits, a figure that doesn’t include private or parochial schools. Nearly 1,000 commercial daycare centers are registered with the city’s Office of Finance, although it’s not clear whether all of these locations would be covered by the city’s new law.

Tuesday’s vote came more than two months after Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, made a surprising personal appearance before councilors to ask 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 on or near school campuses.

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

“These conditions pose a threat to public health,” she said. “They are unsafe and traumatic for students, families and staff when they enter school campuses.”

Buscaino also spoke in favour, saying he has already worked to open more beds for the homeless across the city.

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

A woman and schoolchildren walk past a homeless camp near Larchmont Charter School in August 2021.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The new school year starts on August 15.

Opponents of the proposal have repeatedly argued that the council’s restrictions would effectively ban poverty, leading to the deaths of homeless Angelenos. Banning encampments around schools, they said, would just push people and their belongings away a block or two.

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

The council’s actions also provoked opposition from PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, which builds low-income housing with support services. Tyler Renner, a spokesperson for the organization, said the restrictions would waste time and city resources.

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Enforcement of anti-camping ordinances… only expels people and makes it more difficult for trained outreach personnel to regain trust,” he said in a statement.

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

Those facilities allowed the city to bring in far more people than before, at a time when the joint shelter system, where many people sleep in single rooms, had to operate well below capacity under social distancing guidelines.

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

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

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

Tuesday’s vote marks a shift in the city’s approach to enforcing the anti-camping law, reducing the degree of discretion of individual councilors and introducing more drastic policies. That’s a stark contrast to last summer, when supporters of the law framed it as a narrow and targeted measure, with enforcement accompanied by offers of field worker services.

Over the past year, permanent metal signs have been placed in more than 200 locations with deadlines for leaving homeless people, including 33 schools or nurseries. In some locations, tents and makeshift shelters have remained weeks or months after the TBEN as field workers struggled to persuade people to voluntarily relocate.

While some sites are now free of tents and encampments, others later had more people on the sidewalk than when field workers initially assessed the sites.

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City and county officials, along with homeless service providers, previously told The Times that an insufficient number of field workers and a lack of temporary housing options have hindered implementation of the law.

Enemies of the council’s homelessness strategy have repeatedly called for the restrictions on sidewalk camping to be lifted. Some of those critics are now leading candidates in the November 8 election.

Accountant Kenneth Mejia, frontrunner in the race to replace City Controller Ron Galperin, said the new rules would ban about a fifth of the city’s sidewalks from being homeless. On social media, he has repeatedly criticized the city’s anti-camping law, which not only targets schools and nurseries, but also requires sidewalks to provide 36 inches of passage for wheelchair users.

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

The new anti-encampment law is also discussed in other competitions. Civil rights lawyer Faisal Gill, now candidate to succeed City Atty. Mike Feuer has previously pledged not to enforce the ordinance, saying it is unconstitutional and will be overturned by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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

“The validity, interpretation and enforceability of the [anti-encampment] Ordinance will definitely come for the next city attorney in LA,” she said in a statement. “And if I’m the city attorney, I’d like to have the opportunity to consult with my clients – LA City Council – before taking a permanent position.”

A citywide contest where there is some agreement on the council’s approach is the race for mayor. US Representative Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso, both mayoral candidates, have spoken out against restrictions on camps near schools and daycare centers.

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