In a highly contested move, Los Angeles this week significantly expanded restrictions on where homeless people can sleep as the city, the nation’s second largest, grapples with its housing crisis.
The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to prohibit homeless people from setting up tents within 500 feet of public and private schools and day care centers, during a contentious meeting that demonstrators halted for nearly an hour and that resulted in injuries to two police officers and one arrest.
The Council’s decision reflects how severe the region’s housing crisis has become, experts say.
“We are in that really tragic position of having to talk about balancing where people who are unhoused are sleeping,” said Gary Dean Painter, a professor at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. “We shouldn’t be making that choice.”
Before passing the restrictions on an 11-3 vote, Los Angeles officials approved a few dozen places where people were banned from sitting, sleeping, lying or storing property. But the City Council introduced the latest measure after Alberto M. Carvalho, the Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent, raised concerns, saying young students were being traumatized by what they saw on their way to class.
“Those who have argued that this doesn’t solve homelessness, doesn’t move us forward in this area, are absolutely right — but not on point,” said councilman Gil Cedillo, who voted for the new rules. “The point of this measure is not to solve homelessness at all. The point of this measure is to protect safe passage to schools.”
The impacts of the policy remain unclear, but they are expected to be sweeping. One councilman estimated that it would bump the number of banned sites to 2,000 from 200.
Kenneth Mejia, who is running for Los Angeles city attorney, calculated the rules would make 20% of the city off-limits to encampments. In some corners of the city, that figure could be as high as 48%, he estimated.
Steve Diaz, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting against the new rules, said the restrictions were a way to “create redlining across the city of LA” under the auspices of improving children’s well-being.
“If it was really about children’s safety,” Diaz told the council, “you would be investing more money in permanent supportive housing, wraparound services and ensuring that people were able to access housing as needed, and not into increased policing.”
Officials in California and the West have been restricted from banning encampments after a 2018 court decision determined that criminalizing homelessness violated the U.S. Constitution. In the decision, Martin v. Boise, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecuting people for sleeping in public amounted to cruel and unusual punishment when no shelter beds are available.
But, as more people begin living on the streets, “liberal cities are doing everything in their power to get around Martin v. Boise,” said Ananya Roy, a professor and housing justice advocate for UCLA. “It’s not an effort to alleviate poverty; it’s an effort to manage visible poverty and get it out of sight.”
Jason Ward, associate director of the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles, said enforcing the city’s new law would most likely be complicated and costly. He said the city needed to focus on increasing the housing stock if it didn’t want its homelessness problem to worsen.
“We’re creating new people that will be camping on the streets every day,” Ward said. “A lot of people look at this problem in isolation, but I see it as inextricably linked to the fact that we don’t have enough housing in this region.”