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City Council takes steps to add homeless shelters

LOS ANGELES — The City Council agreed Nov. 17 to declare a shelter crisis to make it easier to open buildings and parking lots year-round to temporarily house the city’s homeless, now estimated to number about 26,000 people.

The language of the declaration still must be drafted by the City Attorney’s Office and come back for final council approval. If approved, the declaration would expand and extend an existing program that quickly makes shelters and beds available during the winter months.

City leaders announced in September that they planned to declare an emergency, or more accurately, a “shelter crisis,” over homelessness, amid news that homelessness in both the city and county has seen a 12 percent jump compared with two years ago.

Under state law, the city can declare a shelter crisis to more easily provide beds and put roofs over those who would otherwise be living on the streets.

The city, however, has limited itself by adopting a law that restricts the declaration of a shelter crisis to the winter months, even though state law does not restrict the allowable duration of the crisis. The Nov. 17 vote will lead to an ordinance allowing the shelter crisis to be declared for the year-round homelessness problem.

Declaring the shelter crisis, as described in a motion by several City Council members, will allow the city to more quickly convert public facilities into shelters. City officials also want to allow owners of private property, such as churches, to make space available to the homeless.

A shelter crisis is different from the more commonly known “local emergency,” which can be initiated by the mayor, usually for a natural disaster, and grants wide powers to use personnel, supplies and other resources to “protect life or property.”

The council also voted to pursue a program that would allow people living in their cars to park their vehicles in designated lots. The “Safe Parking Program” still needs to be developed, with officials expected to report back with a legal framework, and with an ordinance broadening the types of vehicles that would be allowed to park in the lots, beyond the currently allowed trailers.

The City Council will also explore hiring an agency to coordinate the program so it can be operated much like an existing Santa Monica program.

The council also agreed to limit criminal penalties and fines in a city law that prohibits the storage of personal property, including items belonging to the homeless, on sidewalks and other public areas.

The law, known as 56.11, allows the city to give 24-hour notice for the dismantling of homeless encampments and moving personal items to a storage facility.

Under the changes, fines would be imposed if a person impedes city officials’ ability to remove property, or prevents a tent from being dismantled, or if someone is illegally abandoning or dumping trash in a public area.

The changes appear to fall short of demands by advocates for the homeless that misdemeanor penalties and fines be taken out of the law entirely, while addressing complaints by residents who want the city to have more power in removing encampments.

Numerous residents of the San Fernando Valley and San Pedro told the council that homeless encampments have cropped up near their homes, sometimes populated by people committing illegal acts, such as drug use and prostitution.

Other changes to the ordinance that were advanced by the council would only allow unattended items to be impounded with “proper notice.”

City leaders have also been under pressure to change the encampment laws by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency recently revised its funding criteria to penalize grant applications from municipalities that criminalize homelessness, which could hurt Los Angeles’ chances of receiving federal funding, some city and county officials have said.

The council also set up an account for homelessness funding. City leaders declared in September they planned to set aside funds to help the homeless, in an amount up to or more than $100 million.