The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday asked its attorneys to draft a major amendment to the city’s anti-camping ordinance, banning homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and daycares.
The council voted 13 to 2 to draft legal language that would expand its anticamping law to cover hundreds, if not thousands, of educational institutions.
Board members made the decision after hearing from parents of children at Virgil Middle School and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho about incidents involving homelessness immediately at the off campus.
Carvalho, appearing in person at the board meeting, urged members to approve the measure, saying students witnessed behavior that threatens to cause trauma and harm cognitive development.
“I’ve seen elementary schools with conditions that none of us as parents would find acceptable for our children: mentally ill people, some of them absolutely naked, shouting profanity into a listening ear children,” he said.
Board members Mike Bonin and Nithya Raman cast both opposing votes.
Bonin, who represents coastal neighborhoods, said the proposal’s sudden appearance at the city council violated provisions of the state’s open meeting law. He also said the plan, if adopted, would simply push settlements back to nearby locations.
“So instead of [an encampment] being in front of the school, it’s going to be a block from the school, or two blocks from the school,” he said.
The proposal was unveiled and approved a week before Tuesday’s election, with several council incumbents locked in competitive races. In many of these contests, homelessness and public safety dominated the debate.
Board members Bob Blumenfield, Gil Cedillo, Mitch O’Farrell, Curren Price and Monica Rodriguez are up for re-election; Councilor Kevin de León is running for mayor; and Councilman Paul Koretz is campaigning for the position of city comptroller.
All voted in favor of the new measure.
Council President Nury Martinez, who spearheaded the measure, said she had been contacted by Carvalho about issues with encampments outside schools in the city.
Cedillo said he had heard of the elementary schools in Highland Park and Mount Washington.
“That’s what they want,” he said. “That’s what the community…insists and demands.”
Homeless advocates objected to both the substance of the measure and the speed with which the council proposed and approved it.
The measure would represent a sea change in the city’s approach to homeless encampments, rewriting a key aspect of an ordinance that was only finalized last summer after weeks of contentious debate. .
The existing anti-camping ordinance allows the council to ban camping on sidewalks around parks, libraries and schools. However, enforcement cannot proceed until the council reviews a specific location and votes to give the green light to clean it up.
When the law was proposed, critics argued that it would punish people who live on the streets. Council members, in turn, promised that any enforcement would be accompanied by “street engagement teams”: social workers, mental health specialists and others who would provide shelter and homeless services.
The Times recently found that the order had been applied unevenly and rollout had been hampered by a lack of outreach teams to connect homeless people to services.
Tuesday’s measure was passed without review by the council’s homelessness and poverty committee, led by De León. If the council approves changes to its anti-camping law, every school and daycare could be immediately enforced, without the longer review process.
Pete White, who heads the anti-poverty organization Los Angeles Community Action Network, said he feared the changes would punish those living on the streets, pushing them even further. The council’s decision on Tuesday, so shortly before an election, sends a clear message, he said.
“It signals to an increasingly restless electorate that there is a response coming from those sitting behind the horseshoe,” he said.
He added that this is a case of elected officials once again focusing on banning certain places and not creating more housing and services for a vulnerable population.
In recent months, tents have remained in many uncamped areas of the city as outreach workers struggle to persuade people to move voluntarily. So far, the Los Angeles Police Department has issued tickets sparingly.
Eunisses Hernandez, who is seeking to overthrow Cedillo in next week’s election, called the council’s action “horrible”.
“Banning encampments in specific places just pushes people and does nothing to get people off the streets into housing,” she said. “There’s only one thing that effectively reduces the presence of encampments, and that’s housing and long-term care.”
Hugo Soto-Martinez, a labor organizer running against O’Farrell, said he understands parents’ concerns, but the proposal would waste millions while “moving encampments from block to block”.
Kate Pynoos, a former aide to Bonin against O’Farrell, also criticized the measure. She said O’Farrell and her colleagues “cynically masked this backroom motion in terms of ‘youth support’.”
“What drives O’Farrell is just to push homeless people away, rather than actually solving this crisis by providing them with permanent housing,” she said.
O’Farrell, before voting, offered a different approach, saying his office had made steady progress in getting people “under one roof,” in both temporary facilities and permanent housing.
“We have more housing options than ever before in this city,” he said.