Appeals court hears arguments in Los Angeles homelessness lawsuit

A federal appeals court heard arguments Wednesday but made no ruling in the city and county of Los Angeles' bid to vacate a judge's order forcing local government to offer shelter to every homeless person on
Skid Row by the middle of October.

U.S. District Judge David Carter issued the mandatory injunction in April, ordering that all homeless inhabitants of Skid Row must be offered some form of shelter by Oct. 18, starting with single women and unaccompanied
children. The city and county immediately requested that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issue a stay pending appeal.

The hearing was part of a lawsuit brought in March 2020 in Los Angeles federal court by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, an association of downtown residents, homeless individuals and property owners seeking to compel local government to find shelter for the thousands of people camping on city sidewalks.

The appellants argued that Carter's extraordinary order violates the separation of powers, takes powers away from elected officials, and would interfere with local government efforts to deal with the homeless crisis.

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Mira Hashmall, arguing for the county, said the injunction doesn't stand up to legal scrutiny because the plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a particular injury caused by the county. Further, Carter "rewrote the case to be about racial discrimination" when there's "no evidence the county has engaged in any racial discrimination," she said.

"Federal judges are not supposed to wade into political waters such as these," Hashmall said, adding that judges "cannot legislate from the bench." 

Deputy City Attorney Michael Walsh said Carter's court has "identified its own policy preferences in terms of how best to deal with homelessness ... and has disregarded the rule of law to impose those policy preferences through a sweeping order, rather than the decisions made by the city's elected officials -- which is judicial overreach of the worst sort."

The shelter order "simply cannot be upheld" without a valid legal theory or proof of a constitutional violation, of which there are none, Walsh argued. 

Judge John Owens then asked whether Carter's order might actually be the result, not of overreach but "judicial frustration, where we have a judge who really wants to figure out a solution here and, in his opinion, there's been a dismal, dismal failure by the elected officials in Los Angeles who are supposedly charged with fixing this."

"So what is he supposed to do if he sees this violation going on?" Owens said. "Is he supposed to just sit back and watch Los Angeles continue to disintegrate in this area or should he take some action and make something happen?"

Asked by Owens whether stepping up settlement discussions might be a better way to resolve the case, Walsh said "there's always the possibility."

Attorney Shayla Myers, arguing on behalf of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an intervenor in the case, said it was a "rare circumstance that would bring LA CAN to the same side as the city and the county. But the preliminary injunction at issue in this case is that circumstance."

Myers said the L.A. Alliance has failed to show that the public interest is served by the mandatory order, which she maintained would "actually exacerbate the homelessness crisis," displace indigent people in areas outside of Skid Row, and "cause significant uncertainty" among those experiencing homelessness and service providers.

Judge Jacqueline Nguyen indicated that "at a minimum," the appeals panel probably should send the case back to Carter for further hearings. L.A. Alliance attorney Matthew Umhofer argued in his rebuttal that there has been a failure of elected officials, and Carter's injunction is necessary to save lives. 

Umhofer stated that five people a day are dying on the streets of Skid Row and that only 489 units of permanent supportive housing have been built in the last four years. He also argued that the city and county must alter their current course in order to create meaningful change.

Umhofer said the shelter order is not intended to disrupt ongoing efforts but to focus on the "human tragedy" at the epicenter of homelessness in the region -- Skid Row. 

The proceeding was "a critical moment in the effort to solve homelessness in Los Angeles," L.A. Alliance lead attorney Elizabeth Mitchell said after the hearing. "The Ninth Circuit was deeply engaged, asked tough questions of the city and the county, and challenged both to explain their failed homelessness policies. We're confident that we will ultimately prevail in this case and we look forward to continuing to fight for real solutions to this humanitarian crisis."

It's not known when the appeals court will issue its ruling.