A house of cards

The Grants Pass ruling gives LA's leaders a legal pathway to do what many of them have been attempting to do for years — expand the city's anti-camping laws in the lead up to 2028

A house of cards
"It is hard to imagine a starker example of excessive punishment than fining and jailing a person for the basic human act of sleeping,” said Scout Katovich, staff attorney at the ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality, after the Grants Pass ruling

The annual homeless count data was released for Los Angeles County on Friday, and for the first time in six years, the results contained relatively good news. According to LAHSA's point-in-time count, both the county and the city saw slight decreases in homelessness overall. A total of 27,300 people were placed into permanent housing, an all-time high number, and an 18 percent increase from the previous year. LA city specifically saw a 10 percent decrease in unsheltered homelessness — the largest year-over-year decrease since 2013.

These numbers were presented by LA Mayor Karen Bass as validation that her approach — namely, her signature program Inside Safe — was working. "For so many years, the count has shown increases in homelessness, and we have all felt that in our neighborhoods," she said in a statement. "But we leaned into change. And we have changed the trajectory of this crisis and have moved LA in a new direction." 

Hours before LAHSA's press conference, the trajectory of the crisis dramatically shifted at the federal level. The Supreme Court ruled on Grants Pass v. Johnson, where our nation's most ethically compromised justices determined that criminalizing homelessness did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment." Leaders of California cities, and even California Governor Gavin Newsom, praised the court for finally giving them the legal green light to cite and arrest homeless people for sleeping in public.

But not Bass. In her second statement of the morning, Bass condemned the Grants Pass decision, saying the ruling "must not be used as an excuse for cities across the country to attempt to arrest their way out" of homelesness. "Neither will work, neither will save lives and that route is more expensive for taxpayers than actually solving the problem," Bass said. "The only way to address this crisis is to bring people indoors with housing and supportive services."

Despite Bass's statement, homeless people in LA are currently criminalized by an expensive, ineffective, and extremely cruel anti-camping policy: 41.18. And if she doesn't take actions to change that policy, the Grants Pass ruling could jeopardize her tentative progress on homelessness as opportunistic councilmembers spy a chance to ram through a more dangerous version ahead of the Olympics.

For LA and many other California cities, Grants Pass ruling upends the legal framework that they've structured their entire homelessness approach around. In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Martin v. Boise that municipalities could not enforce no-camping rules without "access to adequate temporary shelter." During the last six years, cities like LA have gotten very good at pretending they're not criminalizing homeless people, while simultaneously pretending they're building housing.

LA's Martin v. Boise workaround is 41.18, an existing municipal code amended by a 2021 ordinance to create anti-camping zones: a long list of places where homeless people can be cited, fined, or removed by the city as long as an offer of shelter is made. It's impossible for anyone to remember all the rules, and councilmembers add more zones all the time, so the city of LA has spent $1.73 million just on 41.18 signage. LA leaders tried to say anti-camping laws were about safety, not criminalization, with now-Council President Paul Krekorian claiming that 41.18 "guarantees that we will reestablish passable sidewalks." My official response to that: HAHAHAHAHA.

In March, a long-overdue city report on 41.18 was leaked, documenting its failure in devastating detail. Despite outreach teams ostensibly offering shelter before encampments were cleared, only 16 percent of people received temporary housing. A majority of the 174 dismantled encampments returned. And a City Controller report showed that 41.18 arrests doubled from 2022 to 2023, with half of the arrests in Council District 12, the district with the fewest homeless people.

Councilmembers who don't support 41.18 — there are a few of them — demanded a change in the city's approach. "We know that encampments swept with 41.18 nearly always return, and we spend millions of dollars every year on this ineffective criminalization of homelessness," Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez told LAist. "The city is facing a budget deficit, and we can’t keep lying to the public while spending millions criminalizing homelessness and pushing people from block to block."

The mayor's Inside Safe is not without its own challenges. The program has been heavily criticized by some of its participants, who have made accusations of mistreatment and harassment. It is also costly: participants do end up inside, but until more permanent housing comes online, the city is paying for hotel rooms. A UCLA study that tracked Inside Safe participants concluded that without permanent housing placements, people are likely to leave the program. Only about 255 people had received permanent housing placements as of December 2023.

But the program data also shows that when given the voluntary option to relocate from a tent to a hotel room, Inside Safe has compliance rates near 100 percent; proving that, if offered without threat of arrest, Angelenos overwhelmingly opt for shelter over sidewalks.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass today announced the latest Inside Safe operation in Koreatown. The operation addressed a longstanding encampment in Robert F. Kennedy Inspiration Park next to Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. Through this effort, more than 30 Angelenos were moved off the streets and brought inside. "Today we brought people who were living in tents in a park next to a school into safe housing with services," said Mayor Karen Bass. "We continue to dispel the myth that people do not want to come inside. This is saving lives and helping restore neighborhood spaces for their intended uses. We will continue to operate with urgency and help bring unhoused Angelenos inside." This citywide, voluntary approach leads with housing and services and is one feature in a comprehensive strategy to confront the homelessness crisis. Click here to read more about Inside Safe.
A release from Mayor Karen Bass's office about an Inside Safe operation near RFK Community of Schools in Koreatown. But 41.18 already bans encampments outside schools. If 41.18 is "working" then why are there encampments outside schools at all, and why is LA paying for two different approaches, if one doesn't work?

Clearly more people have come indoors through the mayor's program, says Shayla Myers, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. This is a change that's easily demonstrated by LAHSA's data: unsheltered homelessness went down, and sheltered homelessness went up. But Myers, who is currently in litigation representing homeless Angelenos whose belongings were destroyed in an encampment "cleanup" by the city, says 41.18 makes it harder for caseworkers to stay connected with people in need of housing. In fact, the 10 percent reduction in unsheltered homelessness might be partially explained by 41.18 simply forcing people out of view. "We might just be seeing a dramatic decrease in visible areas," she told me. "We’re not sure if 41.18 is pushing people into places that are making them harder to count."

But reducing visible homelessness might have been exactly the point of amending 41.18.

In 2021, Jeffrey Katzenberg, former Disney chair, Democratic booster, and member of LA28's board of directors, personally persuaded Bass to run for mayor. According to a 2023 Vanity Fair story, during his campaign to woo her, Katzenberg presented Bass with a 16-page homelessness plan — part of his overarching vision for the city in 2028:

Trim and bespectacled, Katzenberg opens our conversation by asking me to imagine the year 2028: mass transit across Los Angeles, the airport transformed by an $11.5 billion capital investment, a new George Lucas museum, Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion basketball arena in Inglewood, and the $750 million Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). And “the final piece of the puzzle”: the 2028 Olympics. Katzenberg is on the board.
With his tidy vision presented, he invites me to “tell me how I’ve got it wrong, because I don’t think so.”
If you’ve got a problem with California, Katzenberg has a solution. Two years ago he drew up 16 pages of what he calls a “Marshall Plan” to fix homelessness.

What the Vanity Fair story leaves out is that as he was recruiting Bass in 2021, Katzenberg was personally meeting with the city's councilmembers to whip votes for his homelessness plan. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Katzenberg "urged councilmembers to act quickly on enacting limits on where people can sleep."

"He wanted to be helpful on homelessness and then it quickly turned to 'tents down,'" one councilmember, who asked to remain anonymous, told the LA Times.

Whether or not Katzenberg's outreach was conducted as an unregistered lobbyist for a global sporting event or as a concerned billionaire who just happens to donate generously to local politicians, once he started knocking on City Hall doors, the ordinance was approved dizzyingly fast. The new ordinance went into effect September 3, 2021. Only two councilmembers voted to oppose it: Nithya Raman and Mike Bonin. In December 2021, the city council approved the 2028 Summer Olympics games agreement. The same two councilmembers voted to oppose that too.

It's important to note here that 41.18 is not Bass's policy — she didn't pass it, she inherited it. In fact, it's Bass's own policy that's transformed the conversation on homelessness in LA, and not just through Inside Safe: she's personally fostered unprecedented coordination between city and county, initiated stronger protections for renters, and streamlined approvals to accelerate affordable housing production without public funding (although her bad decision to exempt single-family neighborhoods will limit this policy's success). Bass also changed the focus of the Mayor's Fund — created by the previous mayor to collect and distribute questionably sourced payments — into a nonprofit exclusively focused on tenant resources to keep people from falling into homelessness.

All of this is helping. And at this precarious moment, keeping 41.18 in place risks undoing all her good work.

In April, when asked at UCLA's Luskin Summit (by my LA Podcast co-host Scott Frazier) if a conservative Grants Pass ruling would lead to a change in LA's homelessness policy, Bass said no. "It won't be coming from the mayor's office," she said, "and I don't think it will be coming from city council."

But it's pretty clearly going to come from city council. If there's any question, this interpretation of Friday's headlines from Councilmember Traci Park spells it right out! Park told KNX that the Supreme Court ruling "gives us the ability to regulate our public spaces" and that LA could now do so "regardless of housing or shelter availability." A motion she introduced Friday to begin that process was signed by seven — or possibly eight? — councilmembers, most of whom are vocal 41.18 supporters.

But Bass could veto whatever they pass. And if she truly believes what she said in her statement Friday about criminalization not solving homelessness, she would.

The Grants Pass ruling gives LA's leaders a legal pathway to do what many of them have been attempting to do for years — expand the city's anti-camping laws in the lead up to 2028. And as international attention turns to LA later this summer, right as we head into the final weeks of our election cycle, the timing for politicizing such legislation could not be worse. Like their calls to increase the size of the police department ahead of the games, these councilmembers will frame amending 41.18 as a necessity for hosting the Olympics.

And LA won't need to wait for a megaevent to double down on enforcement.

"Nothing about LA’s history suggests they will stop using criminalization to erase the signs of visible homelessness from the eyes of the international press," says Myers. "But the city does this on any given Tuesday." 🔥

⚖️ "The majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested." Read Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent in the Grants Pass vs Johnson case

🏘️ Also this past week, a new countywide ballot measure has officially qualified for the November ballot that would repeal 2016's Measure H and replace it with more effective programs to prevent homelessness, including funding the county's new housing authority, LACAHSA. Here's my Report Forward interview with Supervisor Holly Mitchell, LACAHSA's chair

📈 While this week's homeless count data was encouraging, other numbers are not. It is now estimated that six unhoused people die every day in LA County

🌡️ There was horrific news related to heat and megaevents this week. Over 1,300 pilgrims have died during this year's Hajj where temperatures hit 125 degrees, prompting an international conversation about how to keep people safe. As I wrote last month, we need to start getting serious about shifting "summer" events to shoulder seasons — but people living outside don't have that luxury

📖 For anyone who subscribes to this content using the RSS feed, please note that the feed URL was updated in late May. You might need to update your reader, which you can do by navigating to the little icon on the bottom left of the footer on any page of the site. Also, RIP GOOGLE READER

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Torched.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.