Los Angeles Wants to Make Areas ‘Off Limits’ to Homeless Encampments

Activists say it will further punish homeless people in a deeply unequal city where more than 41,000 residents are unhoused.
July 2, 2021, 4:25pm
Activists come to support those living at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.
Activists come to support those living at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The Los Angeles City Council backed a plan Thursday to restrict the most visible manifestation of the region’s homelessness catastrophe: tent encampments that have sprouted up and grown across the city. 

The move, which council members voted to enact 13-2, might help to save politicians’ skins and assuage some of the aggrieved residents coping with what the ordinance described as a crisis of “epic proportions.” After all, California’s homeless population comprises about a quarter of the nationwide total.

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But activists said it could further punish homeless people in a deeply unequal city where more than 41,000 residents—disproportionately people of color—are unhoused. Pete White, the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said Thursday that it would be “impossible to comply” with the ordinance, which he called draconian, according to the Associated Press. 

Under the proposal, which still needs another vote at the end of the month to take effect, sleeping or lying near public facilities like homeless shelters or freeways could be curtailed, according to the Los Angeles Times. Bedding down near a building entrance, school, daycare, or anywhere that council members determine could pose a “particular and ongoing threat to public health or safety” could also be limited. 

The ordinance wouldn’t be enforced in some places unless the location had been designated by council members as off-limits, according to the Associated Press. And people living in such locations also would get adequate notice and an offer of shelter before facing removal. Proponents have described it as a compassionate approach for that reason.

And it could help to address one of the sharpest thorns in the side of Los Angeles’ politicians, too. Right now, six council members are running for reelection, while two others are running for city controller or mayor. And homelessness has long been a subject of contention in the city. 

"This ordinance will allow us to take some key areas, not all areas...and make them off limits to encampments, but only after we have found housing for all of the people who are in that area," Councilmember Bob Blumenfield said, according to KABC. 

What’s more, regulating sidewalks near schools and parks was at least one suggestion that the wealthy Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg made during a meeting with local officials, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

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The ordinance also has the support of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and several business leaders, the Times reported. And during public testimony Thursday, many residents were clearly in favor of the plan that could impose fines on violators, rather than jail time. 

But it’s not just the rich and powerful who want to get homeless people out of their neighborhoods, Council President Nury Martinez said, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

“What about the immigrants who come to this country with absolutely nothing, and bust their asses working to lift their families?” she said, according to the Times. “Why don’t they have a right to a safe park? Why don’t they have a right to a safe library? Why can’t they enjoy a day in their neighborhoods, if they don’t have the money to go to Disneyland or the beach?

Even so, Los Angeles can’t just wish homeless people out of sight. It still lacks the thousands of shelter beds it needs to help many of its homeless residents, according to Mike Bonin, one council member who does not support the plan. Councilwoman Nithya Raman, another opponent, has also said the ordinance came from a “quick and hasty process” that was “done behind closed doors,” according to the Los Angeles Times. 

And so-called “sit-lie” bans, or anti-camping ordinances, can have the effect of simply shuffling impoverished people from place to place, rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness. Yet they’re increasingly popular across the country, according to a report from the National Homelessness Law Center.

Another person, during public testimony over the ordinance, said to council members: “Answer a question for me: When has criminalizing homelessness and criminalizing poverty ever stopped a fucking problem?”