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Judge continues hearing on homeless suit to March 26

LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles federal court hearing to discuss possible solutions to the Skid Row homeless crisis in light of the worsening coronavirus pandemic is expected to resume March 26.

U.S. District Judge David Carter scheduled the hearing in a lawsuit brought by Skid Row business owners against the City and County of Los Angeles aimed at requiring local government agencies to accelerate efforts to shelter and house homeless people who are particularly vulnerable to illness and infection.

The latest hearing March 24 was closed to members of the media, but Carter is expected to allow press to attend the next proceeding.

The Society of Professional Journalists-Los Angeles wrote to the judge after his order March 23 barred the media from the next day’s hearing due to the “epidemiological dangers of the escalating COVID-19 crisis and the confidential nature of settlement discussions,” Carter wrote.

SPJ/LA said that while the organization was “fully cognizant and respectful of federal, state, local, and judicial directives that limit public gatherings and require a prescribed measure of ‘social distancing’ to ensure public safety in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, these considerations in no way preclude the attendance of one or more media representatives at important meetings of public officials conducting the public’s business. There is neither need nor precedent for suspending open government and transparency laws in this type of situation, and it is our firm belief that the severe harms far outweigh any purported good from such restrictions.”

The press organization argued that “there is no acceptable rationale for completely excluding the press, and therefore the public, on the basis of public safety considerations,” and suggested that the court assign a pool reporter on behalf of other media.

The March 26 hearing will take place at the same venue as the March 24hearing, at the Alexandria Ballrooms, a historic downtown venue that’s hosted a variety of events, including Charlie Chaplin’s wedding ceremony. The space was apparently chosen for the size of its grand ballrooms, so participants will have space to follow social distancing guidelines.

The lawsuit, brought by the L.A. Alliance, a coalition of Skid Row-area business owners, formerly homeless, and disabled city dwellers, attempts to find solutions to the problem of thousands of people living in tents, in cars and on the streets throughout the downtown area.

“Let’s get folks in shelters as quickly as possible,” Carter said last week during what he called a “big tent” meeting.

In a court filing March 23, defendants said the city had expanded its shelter program, opening eight shelters, with a current total of 366 beds, each placed six-feet feet apart.

As for a much-discussed modular housing proposal demonstrated at the previous emergency status conference, the city is looking at whether it is a feasible solution under state and local building and fire codes, the filing states.

The county stated that it has reached out to a broker controlling 2,000 potential motel/hotel beds and is negotiating the procurement of all available beds.

The complaint cites 58,936 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 36,300 in the city, the result of the January 2019 homeless count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Results from this year’s count will not be available until May or June.

“Some 75% of [the homeless] are unsheltered persons who lack regular access to basic hygiene care such as toilets, running water to wash hands, showers, sinks, kitchen, laundry which has led to filthy [and unhealthy] conditions,” according to the L.A. Alliance. “Los Angeles bears the dishonorable distinction of hosting the largest unsheltered population in the country.”Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said March 24 that his department has released about 1,700 “nonviolent” inmates from the county jail system to relieve overcrowding amid the pandemic, and the sheriff added that a substantial number of those people are now likely homeless.

From City News Service