Do L.A. County leaders have ‘compassion fatigue’ on homelessness?

Homelessness in most of the state’s big cities has soared in recent years, including in San Francisco, above. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has drawn a line on homelessness, voting 3-2 to support a challenge to an expansive 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that forbids local governments in nine Western states from enforcing laws against camping or sleeping on sidewalks or in other public places unless overnight shelter is available.

That ruling came in September 2018. In invalidating a Boise, Idaho, law against sleeping on public lands, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that “just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying or sleeping on the streets.’” Berzon wrote for a three-judge panel.

Ted Olson, the former U.S. solicitor general who won the Bush v. Gore case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, is among the attorneys working with the city of Boise on an appeal. Los Angeles County will file an amicus brief in support of the appeal.

Republican Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Democrat Supervisor Janice Hahn co-sponsored the resolution to file the brief. Democratic Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state homelessness task force, surprised some observers by being the third vote for the resolution. Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and many big-city Democrats have endorsed policies that emphasize helping and sympathizing with the homeless. Garcetti has called homelessness “the moral and humanitarian crisis of our time.”

Supervisor: Don’t accept ’emergency’ as ‘new normal’

But Ridley-Thomas said in a statement that he was “fed up. The status quo is untenable. … We need to call this what it is — a state of emergency — and refuse to resign ourselves to a reality where people are allowed to live in places not fit for human habitation. I refuse to accept this as our new normal.” Los Angeles County has nearly 60,000 homeless people, according to official estimates, more than double the numbers seen 20 years ago.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, both Democrats, voted no on the resolution, saying homelessness should not be criminalized. Kuehl also said she feared what a “terrible” U.S. Supreme Court might decide in its ruling.

Activists blasted Barger, Hahn and Ridley-Thomas not only for lacking compassion but for reinforcing the narrative of President Donald Trump that homelessness is out of control in coastal California.

“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump said last week.

The president has used Twitter to depict leaders of these cities as hapless and paralyzed in responding to declining quality of life caused by homelessness. He also dispatched Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to visit Skid Row in Los Angeles last week and said he wanted to help California deal with its homeless problem.

But the nature of possible federal help is unclear. Trump has suggested that homeless people might be rounded up and housed on federal property or military bases, but civil-rights lawyers say the president has no authority to forcibly relocate individuals who have not committed federal crimes. 

The Associated Press reported that Carson might link federal housing grants to local governments’ efforts to make it easier to add housing by limiting regulations. That approach would parallel efforts by Newsom and lawmakers led by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, to weaken local zoning rules that they say enable NIMBYs to block new housing.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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