A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday seeks to force Los Angeles officials to provide thousands of shelter beds in an effort to stem what it described as the unfolding “human tragedy” of people living in squalor on the streets.
While once largely confined to the notorious Skid Row neighborhood, encampments have spread countywide. Freeway overpasses are lined with tents, and it's a common sight to see someone pushing a shopping cart filled with belongings through downtown and even suburban neighborhoods.
A 2019 count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that there were close to 60,000 homeless people living in LA County, including 36,000 within the city limits.
The suit by the LA Alliance for Human Rights accuses officials in greater Los Angeles of failing to comprehensively address the homelessness crisis. One legal expert said it seems unlikely that a federal court would actually take the case.
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The lawsuit asks a judge to set a “legally enforceable mandate” to establish homeless services and enough beds for anyone who needs one on any given night. it also seeks unspecified sanctions against officials for failing to meet the requirements within a strict timetable.
Residents are confronted daily with public health risks, blocked sidewalks, untreated mental illness and addiction, environmental hazards and increased crime, according to the filing.
“It is difficult for the housed and it is deadly for the unhoused,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, an attorney for the Alliance who previously served in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.
The alliance describes itself as a "grassroots group of community members" that includes downtown residents, small business owners, non-profits, service providers and community leaders.
Los Angeles officials haven't seen the filing and couldn't immediately comment, said Rob Wilcox, spokesman for the city attorney's office. The county does not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Jesus A. Ruiz said.
It would be hard to imagine a federal court agreeing to take on this case, said Gary Blasi, professor emeritus of law at University of California, Los Angeles.
"A judge is not going to oversee the governments of the city and the county to deal with this problem, as complicated as it is," he said.
Blasi said a sympathetic judge might decide to address just the issue of tents blocking passage on sidewalks under the ADA. But even if it makes it into the legal system, he doesn't see any resolution in time to address the pressing crisis.
As an example he recalled recent ADA litigation against the city about ficus trees pushing roots up through the sidewalks, making it difficult for people in wheelchairs to pass.
“I think that went on for ten years before there was any kind of settlement," Blasi recalled. "I could see the same thing with this."
Norman Eagle owns an industrial property near downtown that he says is beset by sidewalk encampments that routinely block the entrances to his buildings. He said he supports the lawsuit because he's increasingly frustrated by the city's inability to clean up accumulating trash and human waste.
It's a health risk for people forced to live on the streets and for people who have jobs in the area, he said.
"As a landlord I want my tenants to feel safe and secure when they come to work," he said.
According to the homeless authority and Mayor Eric Garcetti's office, an average of 130 homeless people in Los Angeles move into housing daily. However, an average of 150 people become homeless every day.
The lawsuit claims shelter beds could be made available more quickly and cheaply than under current city and county plans. All options should be considered including shared housing, huge tents called sprung structures, tiny houses, and inexpensive 3D printed homes, the filing said. There is city and county-owned property near Los Angeles International Airport and elsewhere where shelters could go up, according to the court documents.