Judge touches on 'structural racism' in Skid Row homelessness hearing

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Friday, May 28, 2021
Federal judge blasts LA's efforts to combat homelessness crisis
A federal judge blasted the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County for their approach to homelessness during proceedings Thursday.

A federal judge blasted the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County for their approach to homelessness during proceedings Thursday that touched on the "structural racism" the jurist believes created and sustains the sprawling Skid Row area.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter -- who is overseeing a lawsuit dealing with the homelessness crisis filed by a group of business owners, residents and community leaders -- criticized local government for moving too slowly in providing shelter for the homeless.

Carter then pointed out how Los Angeles was able to clear out and clean up homeless encampments on freeway overpasses in the days before the Oscars ceremony at Union Station last month.

"We were certainly able to bat 100% for the Academy Awards, weren't we?" said Carter, referring to pictures that showed the sidewalks stripped of tents and encampments.

"It does not make sense to say you cannot put a roof over everybody's heads on Skid Row in the next 90 days for women and children and the next 180 days for everyone when you can quickly do it for the Academy Awards," said Reverend Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, a frontline care provider for the homeless in L.A.

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Bales was referring to the judge's order earlier this year that the city and county must offer housing to the homeless population of Skid Row by mid-October. He echoed the judge's criticism, saying local leaders find ways to house the homeless when it behooves them.

"We're disingenuous saying 'No, no, we can't put a roof over everybody's head in six months,' but we sure show that we can do it when we want to," said Bales.

A spokesperson for LAHSA, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, says the joint city-county agency is not part of the lawsuit and will not comment. But in federal court, LAHSA's executive director said Mayor Eric Garcetti's office ordered the area around the Union Station cleared before the awards show for security reasons.

Eyewitness News reached out to Garcetti's office for comment, but has not heard back.

During the unusual 4 1/2-hour hearing, Carter called upon, among others, Pastor Stephen "Cue'' Jn-Marie, who holds worship meetings on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that institutional racism exists,'' the evangelist said. "Look at how many people are getting pushed out of housing each and every day. I didn't come to preach today, but I will.''

Reverend Bales says that should not come as a surprise to anyone.

"As long as there's a reluctance to do the right thing, we are definitely doing the wrong thing and that is in particular to people of color," Bales told Eyewitness News.

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The lawsuit in question was filed by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of downtown business owners and Skid Row residents who accuse the city and county of mismanaging the homelessness crisis.

The judge urged city and county attorneys to begin serious settlement talks to resolve the year-old lawsuit.

Carter said destitute people must be moved off the streets and away from dangerous and unsanitary conditions, "and that's something that should've been done long ago.''

He added that he was "absolutely terrified'' of what the forthcoming rains could bring to the unhoused on Skid Row, which he described as "beyond any civilized society'' and even worse than the refugee camps of Afghanistan and Syria.

Although homelessness has spread throughout the area, "Skid Row is the epicenter, but the whole city is crying for help right now,'' the judge said.

Carter chastised city and county lawyers for apparently not reading -- and taking seriously -- his written orders in the case, and for allowing momentum in the lawsuit to lag.

"The inertia that's occurred is causing untold loss of life,'' he said.

City Councilman Kevin de León -- whose district includes Skid Row and who walked its streets with the judge during the last torrential rainstorm -- said that "decades of willful ignorance'' have "led us to this moment.''

Calling the district both an "open-air prison'' and a humanitarian crisis, de León said that if Los Angeles residents had been displaced by a natural disaster such as an earthquake, "FEMA would be moving heaven and earth'' to help. Suggesting that a racist system created Skid Row and allowed it to grow unchecked, the councilman said that "only a collective effort can solve it.''

The judge then showed a series of slides documenting life on the streets, including scenes of homeless encampments blocking entire city sidewalks, rats next to tents, single women camping together in front of a downtown shelter for protection, and the sick and mentally ill unprotected during the storm.

Carter stressed that the oft-repeated phrase "breaking the cycle'' of poverty can mean a room simply for a day or two.

"When you talk to these women individually, they want a room,'' he said, adding that the slides illustrate why he has made help for the roughly 600 unhoused single women on Skid Row a priority.

Skip Miller, the county's outside counsel, said that many of L.A. Alliance's claims in its lawsuit against the city and county are not backed up by facts. As for not doing enough to help, Miller said the county has 11 departments working on homeless issues.

"We don't need a lawsuit to tell us to deliver services to Skid Row,'' he said. "Litigation doesn't help people who need help.''

The attorney said Los Angeles County is willing to begin settlement talks to resolve the suit and has made overtures to the city to come to some agreement between the two entities. Bureaucratic snarls between the two are among reasons the lawsuit stalled.

"I believe it's a lot better than litigating,'' Miller said.

The judge questioned whether the county and city were serious about working out their problems and told lawyers that he is available at any time to discuss the situation.

"We're excited about the possibilities,'' said Scott Marcus, a city attorney.

Carter urged the parties to begin talks as soon as possible.

"If it doesn't happen now, we're going to be reading about this 10 years from now,'' the judge said.

However, he said, "I'm concerned that what is being presented today by the city and county is fiction.''

City News Service contributed to this report.