Above photo: Nadia Carol/Creative Commons.
California -On Tuesday, April 20, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter of the Central District of California issued a ruling that is likely to become a watershed moment in the United States’ response to homelessness.
In March of last year, the LA Alliance for Human Rights and several individuals sued the City and County of Los Angeles, alleging that they had not only fundamentally failed to address the homeless emergency in Los Angeles but had in fact contributed to creating it over the course of several decades. The complaint they filed reads more like what we might imagine the authors of the “Seattle is Dying” video would have written about Los Angeles: public health hazards, accumulating trash, rising crime, blocked sidewalks, local government leaders unwilling or unable to rise to the challenge of dealing with it. But Judge Carter had his own ideas, and over the last year has fully immersed himself in the issues and the situation on the ground.
Much of LA’s homeless population is concentrated in a 50-block area of the city known as Skid Row, which dates back to the late 1800s when it was a center for “day-rate hotels, bars and brothels” catering to transients riding the trains (it was near the train terminal) and migrant workers. Over time, Skid Row accumulated an increasingly large homeless population, as well as individuals “dumped” there as they were released from jails, prisons, and institutions serving those with mental health issues. But in 1976 the city adopted a “containment” policy for Skid Row, collecting and concentrating what they considered the city’s “undesirable population elements” there and using the police to enforce the containment policy.
In 2018, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority commissioned an Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness; at the time, Black people were only 9% of the population of Los Angeles County but 40% of the homeless population there (now it’s 42%). The committee’s report lays out the decades of structural racism in housing policy, policing, employment, health care, education, access to services, and access to opportunities that contributed to the dramatic overrepresentation of Black people within the city’s homeless community.
Over the past year he has presided over this case, Judge Carter took it all in. He got out of the courthouse and held hearings in Skid Row, the transcript of which makes for some astounding reading on its own. And then last month the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to try to force the City and County to finally step up and respond at a scale equal to the problem.
Judge Carter didn’t hold a single hearing on the motion, though he points out that he had held plenty of evidentiary hearings over the previous year. Instead, he went off and wrote a 110-page order — essentially he wrote an entire book — granting the preliminary injunction. In doing so he crafted an initial remedy that goes well beyond what the plaintiffs asked for. He required the City and County to perform an audit on all local, state, and federal grant funding; all developers who were funded by the City and County to develop affordable housing; and all funds committed to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
But that’s just the warm-up. Carter ordered the City and County to provide offers of shelter within 90 days to all unaccompanied women and children in Skid Row; within 120 days for all families there; and within 180 days for everyone there. Further, he required them to offer housing and treatment services to all individuals within Skid Row who are in need of services from the Department of Mental Health or the Department of Public Health. He also required them to offer support services to all who accept shelter offers. To enable that, Judge Carter ordered the city to place $1 billion in escrow; ordered the cessation of all sales or transfers of public lands; ordered a report within 30 days on specific actions to address the structural barriers that have led to the overrepresentation of Black people among the homeless population; and ordered Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti and County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis to explain why they have not declared an emergency related to homelessness in order to expedite solutions.
Generally speaking, courts have ruled that individual residents do not have a right to demand aid from their government; however, there is one important exception: when the government was an active, willing, and knowing participant in creating the conditions that lead to the need for aid. This is known as the “state-created danger” doctrine. Judge Carter invokes this as the primary justification for his sweeping order: that Los Angeles created layers of structural racism that deprived Black people of opportunity, and it had an explicit policy of concentrating the homeless population in Skid Row and then depriving them of services.
Judge Carter’s order is an amazing read, and it starts by citing Abraham Lincoln:
In the ebb of afternoon sunlight, young Americans looked at their former compatriots as adversaries as they advanced towards them. Young teenagers carried battle flags to rally upon in the chaos that would soon ensue. There is nothing free about freedom. It is borne from immense pain, suffering, and sacrifice. Our country has struggled since the Emancipation Proclamation to right the evil of slavery. One hundred and fifty-eight years ago, at the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made a short and profound speech, exemplifying an unshakable moral commitment to end the abomination of slavery despite the terrible sacrifice of life.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. …
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government, of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The Civil War brought a formal end to the institution of slavery, but a century and a half after the Gettysburg Address, the “unfinished work” of which President Lincoln spoke remains woefully unfinished.
Here in Los Angeles, how did racism become embedded in the policies and structures of our new city? What if there was a conscious effort, a deliberate intent, a cowardice of inaction? Through redlining, containment, eminent domain, exclusionary zoning, and gentrification — designed to segregate and disenfranchise communities of color — the City and County of Los Angeles created a legacy of entrenched structural racism. As shown most clearly in the present crisis of homelessness, the effects of structural racism continue to threaten the lives of People of Color in Los Angeles.
It’s clear that the judge knows he’s making a bold play in using his judicial powers to push the City and County out of decades of inaction, but he in no way shies away from the higher call. He ends his ruling by once again calling Lincoln to mind as he lays out a “way forward”:
There can be no defense to the indefensible. For all the declarations of success that we are fed, citizens themselves see the heartbreaking misery of the homeless and the degradation of their City and County. Los Angeles has lost its parks, beaches, schools, sidewalks, and highway systems due to the inaction of City and County officials who have left our homeless citizens with no other place to turn. All of the rhetoric, promises, plans, and budgeting cannot obscure the shameful reality of this crisis — that year after year, there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year, more homeless Angelenos die on the streets.
Like Abraham Lincoln’s call to action in his Gettysburg address, it is for us “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced.” Let us pick up that flag, and have the courage of those who fought so long ago, to act so that we can become a better nation and people.
This ruling will shake Los Angeles’ government to the bone over the coming months and years, and it will likely have repercussions for how all U.S. cities, including Seattle, look at their struggles to address homelessness.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.