With the pandemic surging once again, rising populations of unhoused people are struggling to find safe places to live in cities across the United States.
On July 29th, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a new anti-camping law, effectively banning unhoused people from large swaths of the city. The new ordinance outlaws “sitting, lying or sleeping” in public and sets new, wide-ranging restrictions on all camping and loitering within most public spaces inside LA County. The newly-forbidden areas include underpasses; bridges and tunnels; within 500 feet of schools, libraries, daycares and parks; within 5 feet of all driveways, exits or entrances; and even within 1,000 feet of homeless shelters.
All these restrictions raise the question: where are unhoused people allowed to exist in LA?
The answer is striking, according to an interactive map produced by a team of UCLA researchers. “Using publicly available data from the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, and the State of California, we created a map to visualize remaining public spaces for people experiencing homelessness,” wrote Ashley Frederes, one of the researchers who built the map.
The map illustrates the alarming amount of physical space affected by the ruling, and just how broadly restricted the estimated 41,000 unhoused residents of Los Angeles have become. Even then, the map is an underestimate. “Due to missing data (ie, there are no datasets of all entrances in the City) and the ambiguity of certain provisions (e.g., sidewalks and driveways), the map does not fully depict the effect of the proposed restrictions on public spaces,” the researchers write.
Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist at UCLA who used to work for the LA County Health Department, told Motherboard that producing the map was a way to understand how the new ordinance would impact her and her colleagues' work providing unhoused communities with mobile COVID-19 vaccine facilities. Since the pandemic, she and her colleagues have been studying the COVID-19 outbreak in homeless shelters and unhoused encampments, work that the new ordinance will have a “major, complicating impact” on—all at a time when Los Angeles County is seeing a 20-fold spike in COVID-19 cases.
Another map, produced by Ulysses Pascal, a Phd student at the UCLA Department of Information Studies, shows an even more blunt representation of what Pascal calls the new “LA Exclusion Zone.” The map compiles an enormous amount of data that includes driveways and other areas left out from the UCLA map. The data is so dense that Pascal’s ability to computationally analyze it was limited by the capacity of traditional mapping software.
“If politicians can create laws that are so complex that you cannot use existing [mapping] tools to properly map their effects, how can such a law be properly enforced?” Pascal told Motherboard. “What does it mean for a leader to vote on a law that even they do not have the resources to understand?”
The ruling comes amid a homelessness crisis that has gone unaddressed by Los Angeles leadership for years, and signals a future of increasing sweeps and criminalization. In defiance of CDC guidance, Los Angeles County has continued encampment sweeps throughout the pandemic. On March 24th, City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell ordered the closure of the 10.5 acre Echo Park in order to remove the growing community of unhoused people who had taken residence there since the beginning of the pandemic. Hundreds of police officers descended on the park after dark, kettling the protestors who had gathered outside and arresting 182.
It's currently unclear how many unhoused people reside in LA—the count was stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and last year's count of 41,000 is almost certainly lower than the current population. A report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the number of unhoused people nationwide went up by over 12,000 during the pandemic.
“Unhoused people are engaged in a constant battle of survival,” Theo Henderson, a local housing justice advocate, told Motherboard, “[The ordinance] is not about safety, it is a weapon against the unhoused.” Henderson, who is currently unhoused and residing in Los Angeles, is the host of WeTheUnhoused, a podcast that covers housing justice in Los Angeles through interviews with unhoused people.
Henderson noted that the original version of the ordinance, then called the “sit and lie law”, was first adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 1963 during an era of rampant anti-Black violence. Currently, 52 percent of unhoused families in the US are Black.
“This is a tactic to demonize the Black and the poor and negate the civil rights of unhoused people,” said Henderson.