Rafu Wire and Staff Reports
The city of Los Angeles will not be allowed to remove property of homeless people in a designated area of Skid Row and will pay $645,000 under a lawsuit settlement finalized today in federal court.
The City Council voted 12-2 last May 24 to settle the case, Carl Mitchell v. Los Angeles, with Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Jose Huizar dissenting.
“We see [the settlement]as an important step toward actually securing our goals of ensuring there is housing for everyone,” said Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which was a plaintiff in the suit along with Los Angeles Catholic Worker and three individuals.
White said although he was pleased with the outcome, he doesn’t necessarily see the settlement as a “win,” at least not yet.
“The ultimate ‘win’ is when we are approaching the issues as a public health crisis … and humanitarian issue, and I think that we’ll begin moving in the correct direction when we see our resources allocated toward things that house people,” White said. “The settlement protects not just [the homeless population’s]property, but all Angelenos’ resources.”
White said although he wants to see the city’s resources protected, entering litigation was a last resort to protect the property of the people he represents, calling it a 14th Amendment issue.
Buscaino said in a statement that the settlement “will only perpetuate the public health crisis that already exists in Skid Row and will set a precedent for the rest of the city that will normalize encampments.”
“The city is sending a clear signal that we are turning the sidewalks in Skid Row into free, unlimited public storage, doing a disservice to the residents of Los Angeles, especially to those living on the streets,” the councilman said.
Huizar also voiced his displeasure with the settlement agreement.
“I am opposed to the cat-and-mouse game the city and these same litigants continue to play, which will have a detrimental effect on setting sound homelessness policy for the city of Los Angeles,” Huizar said in a statement. “The city continues to set policy as a reaction to individual and ongoing lawsuits rather than agreeing to a comprehensive settlement with a multitude of litigants that will move us forward in a proactive path in helping us address our homelessness crisis.”
Per the settlement, the city for three years must let people know both 24 hours and 30 minutes before a cleanup is to take place and must not seize property of those who choose to reside on the streets within the borders of Second Street to the north, Eighth Street to the south, Spring Street to the west and Alameda Street to the east. The city will also not be allowed to conduct cleanups when it is colder than 50 degrees outside or when it’s raining.
Large items, such as couches, mattresses, dressers, or other similarly sized or larger furniture and cooking appliances of more than a few pounds and open-flame devices are still prohibited. The city is still able to remove items that are deemed abandoned, present an immediate threat to public health or safety, are crime evidence or contraband.
Property that is seized under the belief that the item isn’t considered contraband or criminal evidence will be held for 90 days for people to recover.
The settlement funds are to be used to pay damages claimed in the suit, as well as the defendants’ attorneys fees and associated costs.
A joint statement on the settlement was issued by Masao Mike Okamoto, president of the Little Tokyo Business Association, and Ellen Endo and Joanne Kumamoto, co-chairs of the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District:
“We are disappointed that the Mitchell case did not go to court and that the city opted to settle instead. The agreement announced today added parts of Little Tokyo in a ‘buffer zone’ around Skid Row.
“However, we are committed to continue to work with the Los Angeles County Health Department, Los Angeles Sanitation Department (LASAN), Los Angeles Police Department, social service providers, and other agencies on behalf of Little Tokyo to resolve any new or ongoing issues that may arise.
“The Little Tokyo Business Association, which manages the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District (LTBID), is committed to the health and safety of our community. We provide a year-round safety patrol and street cleanup services supported by local merchants and community organizations for the betterment of Little Tokyo.
“The rising population of unsheltered individuals in our city and particularly in the downtown Los Angeles area is a tragedy borne out of a complexity of challenges that reach beyond one lawsuit or one solution.
“Ensuring that Little Tokyo remains clean and safe has always been and must continue to be a community-wide effort.”
Los Angeles has long struggled with how to clean up and regulate homeless encampments and in 2016 passed a law limiting the amount of belongings a homeless person can store on the sidewalk to 60 gallons. But in response to the lawsuit, a federal judge issued an injunction barring Los Angeles police and sanitation officers from seizing and destroying homeless people’s property in and near Skid Row.
U.S. District Judge S. James Otero’s injunction also ordered the city to segregate and store impounded belongings where they can be recovered.
The increased regulation has led to an escalation in the size of homeless encampments on Skid Row, where thousands of homeless people congregate.
Buscaino pointed to the federal court ruling as being partly responsible for a typhus outbreak at City Hall earlier this year, since it has led to a significant increase in homeless encampments in downtown.
“That injunction is prohibiting our outreach workers from getting to our most vulnerable homeless population in and around the downtown area. So rats are a symbol of this injunction,” Buscaino said in voting against a settlement along with Huizar, who represents the Skid Row area as well as Little Tokyo.