More councilmembers now opposing ban on where homeless residents can sleep

Tents covered in blue tarps on a freeway overpass during the daytime. Tall buildings and palm trees are visible in the background.Tents belonging to homeless people on a freeway overpass in Los Angeles. The city of Los Angeles is considering restricting where homeless residents can sleep. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

One councilmember says the proposed rules border on “cruel”

At least three local lawmakers now say they don’t support proposed rules that would block off areas where LA’s growing population of homeless residents can sleep.

Los Angeles City Councilmembers David Ryu, Mike Bonin, and Marqueece Harris-Dawson have come out against the proposal, which was designed to comply with a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that cities can’t make it a crime for homeless people to sleep outdoors when there’s not enough shelter for them.

Instead of a blanket ban, the city attorney has drafted rules that would limit where people can sit, sleep, and lie.

But Ryu says the rules are “too broad, bordering on cruel” for the more than 8,000 unhoused Angelenos who sleep in tents and makeshift shelters.

Under the proposal, it would be illegal to sit, sleep, and lie near parks, freeway overpasses, schools and routes to schools, existing shelters, on bike and recreational paths, and in “crowded sidewalk areas” and major venues.

A recent Los Angeles Times analysis found the banned areas would cover 124 square miles, or about one-quarter of the city.

“I cannot in good conscience support this idea, and I doubt that it would be feasible or enforceable,” Ryu said.

Also in the proposed rules is a clause that would ban conduct “annoying” to pedestrians. That could include, according to senior assistant city attorney Valerie Flores, “following too closely” when there’s no crowd and “speaking to another person in a manner that would make that other person fear bodily harm.”

“That language is absolutely ripe for abuse,” Bonin says.

“If you spend any time on social media in Los Angeles, you know that the mere existence of homeless people on the streets will trigger people to ask for that to be enforced,” he says. Bonin says he fears it would be used to discriminate against black residents, who disproportionately make up 33 percent of the homeless population.

City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson says the rules would criminalize homelessness, “empowering residents and police with unilateral discretion and authority to respond to incidents with undue and possibly unjust enforcement.”

Harris-Dawson and Ryu originally voted in August to move forward with the rules when they were first introduced to the council’s homelessness and poverty committee. Bonin was absent for the vote, but says he would have dissented.

A spokesperson for Harris-Dawson says the councilmember changed his opinion “after considering how the changes would further criminalize homeless residents” and noted that “the public comments also helped.”

On Monday night, the Los Angeles Tenants Union organized a protest outside Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s home in Glassell Park. (It was at O’Farrell’s request that the city attorney drafted the new rules). Last week, at least a dozen members of the “Services Not Sweepscoalition flooded a committee meeting to unleash their concerns.

Critics want the city’s existing law repealed—not amended.

The proposed rules would replace the city’s blanket ban on sitting, lying, and sleeping on “any street, sidewalk or other public way.” That ordinance, No. 41.18, has been in effect since 1968, but the city stopped enforcing it at night it in 2007, after it was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six homeless people in a case called Jones v. the City of Los Angeles.

In that case, the courts ruled that because there were more than homeless residents than shelter beds, it was cruel for the city to punish homeless residents for “sitting, lying or sleeping on public sidewalks,” calling it “an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the city of Los Angeles.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that’s spurring the changes was brought against the city of Boise, and the ruling references Jones v. the City of Los Angeles. The panel wrote that Boise’s rules against camping on sidewalks was “just as sweeping as the Los Angeles ordinance at issue in Jones.”

But the judges in the Boise case did note that “even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible.”

“The Boise does leave room for some restrictions,” says Bonin. “But it’s a narrow window, not a gaping hole.”

Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he believed the city had the “legal authority” to begin reinforcing 41.18, because it had met the requirements of the settlement. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the city of Los Angeles has about 8,000 shelter beds to serve the homeless population, and more are on the way.

The new rules are headed to the council soon for a full discussion (only five of its 15 members serve on the homelessness committee).

A spokesperson for O’Farrell says the councilmember “wants to hear from his colleagues” and will “support policy that strikes a balance between the needs of those experiencing homelessness and keeping our public spaces safe and accessible.”