After three hours of heated debate, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 supporting a motion by Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn to add the county to the legal action seeking a Supreme Court review of Martin v. City of Boise, which recently restricted a municipality’s ability to create its own policies to address homelessness.
In the end, after several speakers urged Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to quash the motion — instead, he voted in favor. Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl opposed the motion.
The Martin decision forbids municipalities from enforcing “common sense ordinances” that prohibit public camping unless those local governments can offer acceptable shelter to every unhoused person in the jurisdiction, Barger and Hahn said jointly in their motion.
In other words, the county could be powerless to address camping in public places by anyone until it provides shelter for everyone.
The motion calls for the board to instruct county lawyers to file an amicus brief and join any legal action seeking to overturn Martin v. City of Boise.
“Los Angeles County and municipalities across the nation are facing a deepening homelessness crisis that demands we have more tools — not more roadblocks — necessary to address the issue in an effective, compassionate manner,” Barger said after the vote.
“One of the most difficult challenges we face in combating homelessness is assisting those on our streets, living with a serious mental illness,” she said. “The Martin decision ties the hands of municipalities from enforcing common sense public camping ordinances that would allow us to provide life-saving treatment to this vulnerable population.”
In the Santa Clarita Valley, every three months, deputies with the SCV Sheriff’s Station work with staffers at the city of Santa Clarita, carrying out sweeps of homeless camps set up primarily in the Santa Clara River wash.
The sweeps are carried out with the city’s Community Preservation Team with the goal of reducing illegal encampments.
Under Martin, such sweeps would not be allowed.
The latest SCV sweep of homeless camps was carried out early last week.
“This is about our ability to help people,” Barger told the board, amid jeers and outbursts from people opposed to the motion.
“People want us to act, and act now,” she said.
Numerous speakers who opposed the motion accused Barger and Hahn of criminalizing the homeless.
Barger, however, trying to show how the homeless are criminalized without her motion, shared a personal story as an example.
“I spoke recently with a dear friend whose brother suffers from a serious mental illness and cycles in and out of homelessness,” Barger said. “She explained to me that the local municipalities whose hands are tied by Martin (court ruling) are often unable to help her brother. He cannot be moved to a safer location and, as a result, he never stabilizes.
“He is, endlessly, ticketed for low-level crimes, which creates a barrier for him, weakening him for jobs and housing in the future. He remains stuck in this crisis and ends up being criminalized as a result.”
Those opposed to the motion used words like “fascist,” “racist,” “ridiculous,” “misguided,” dehumanizing and disheartening, among other terms.
Speaker Francesca de la Rosa told the supervisors: “We cannot arrest our way out of homelessness.”
One man at the podium told the board: “What (the unhoused) need least in their lives is a police baton.”
Speaker John Kerin said: “It is immoral and unacceptable to criminalize people trying to survive.”
At the close of the public comment portion of the meeting, Kuehl summed up the mood of those who spoke out against the motion and why she voted against it.
Civil rights issue
“I feel very strongly about this and am deeply disappointed in the action of the board today. This is a civil rights, practical and human issue,” Kuehl said in a prepared statement after the vote.
“Where do we expect people to go if we have no housing to offer them but criminalize homelessness by simply removing them from the streets? Our homeless and housing crisis has been decades in the making, and today my colleagues, frustrated with our progress and alarmed by the scale of the problem, took an action that would simply give law enforcement expanded ability to cite or arrest homeless people with no other place to go,” she said.
Defending her motion, Barger said two dozen other agencies, including the cities of Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Jose, are also seeking to overturn Martin.
Barger shared statistics to support her argument and to illustrate the “severity of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles County.”
A record-high 58,936 county residents are experiencing homelessness — an increase of more than 12% from 2018 — with increases among children and youth, 8,500 of whom are experiencing homelessness, up 24% from 2018, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
LAHSA also reports that approximately 44,214 individuals experiencing homelessness are unsheltered. Some estimates indicate that for every 133 people leaving homelessness in the county, another 150 per day become homeless.
The average life expectancy for individuals experiencing homelessness in the county is 48 for women and 51 for men, compared with California’s average life expectancy of 83 years for women and 79 years for men. Last year, 918 individuals experiencing homelessness died across the county.
This year, nearly three homeless persons die each day. As of early September, 698 homeless people have died, Barger and Hahn said in their motion.
The Martin ruling, according to Barger and Hahn, places an enormous burden on the county. Local governments, they argued, need to have the ability to regulate public camping to protect everyone, especially the most vulnerable and in need.
Unregulated encampments can create a public health crisis to those inside and outside those encampments, county officials say. Los Angeles County has already reported the spread of communicable diseases in public areas, with recent outbreaks of medieval-era illnesses such as typhus and tuberculosis.