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Judge orders hearing on homeless lawsuit

LOS ANGELES — A federal judge has scheduled an emergency status conference March 19 to address a lawsuit seeking to have the city and county of Los Angeles ordered to provide shelter space for the thousands of homeless at risk of contracting coronavirus.

“The homeless population is one of the most vulnerable at this time, and there is significant risk of contracting the virus among the homeless in the city,” U.S. District Judge David Carter wrote in an order setting the hearing. “In light of these events, the court believes an emergency status conference in this case is necessary and would be beneficial, even though defendants have not yet appeared in the action nor responded to the complaint.”

The complaint was filed March 10 in Los Angeles federal court by the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of Skid Row-area business owners, formerly homeless, and disabled city dwellers who contend the apparent lack of services and alleged negligence on the part of officials has resulted in a multitude of dangers in the area. Defendants include the city and county of Los Angeles.

“People are perishing in the streets at a rate of three per day while the city and county of Los Angeles have tried but failed to stem this tide of human tragedy,” the plaintiffs allege. “The numbers alone are staggering.”

The complaint cites 58,936 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 36,300 in the city — an increase of 12% and 16% from the prior year’s count, respectively.

“Some 75% of these 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,” the L.A. Alliance said in the suit. “Los Angeles bears the dishonorable distinction of hosting the largest unsheltered population in the country.”

Carter, who is based at the Santa Ana federal court, previously ordered Orange County officials to develop a plan to address the homeless crisis after a lawsuit was filed over the removal of thousands of persons living at an encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim.

The Los Angeles coalition alleges that in Los Angeles city and county, homeless encampments are becoming deeply entrenched.

“With increased population density, unlimited property accumulation has fostered a proliferation of flea-infested rats and other vermin, which are largely responsible for the recent outbreaks of medieval diseases,” the lawsuit states. “Large items obstruct the free passage and use of the streets and sidewalks. Encampments have brought with them rampant drug sales and use, which in turn provide a platform for violent assaults and property crimes.”

People living on the downtown streets and in their cars “have no regular access to sanitation facilities, so trash and human waste end up in public spaces and ultimately our oceans,” the plaintiffs maintain.

Further, local businesses are “regularly cleaning used syringes out of their drains; an untold number are washed into our waterways,” according to the suit, which seeks an “emergency response providing immediate shelter for all and abating the degradation of our cities and communities, for the good of everyone.”

In scheduling the March 19 federal court hearing, Carter said the urgency of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is of sufficient “severity and magnitude” to warrant an emergency meeting.