“But counsel,” interrupted Judge John Owens, “you can call it judicial overreach . . . you can also call it judicial frustration — where we have a judge who really wants to figure out a solution here — and in his opinion there’s been a dismal, dismal failure by the elected officials in Los Angeles who are supposedly in charge of fixing this. So what is he supposed to do if he sees this violation going on? Is he just supposed to sit back and watch Los Angeles continue to disintegrate? Is that what he’s supposed to do? Or should he take some action and make something happen?”
At the heart of the televised hearing before a panel of three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday was whether Federal District Judge David O. Carter went too far with his sweeping order that the city and the county of Los Angeles find housing for the homeless on Skid Row. In their oral arguments, lawyers for both the city and county (who are appealing that order) vehemently denounced Judge Carter for “legislating from the bench.”
Yet when Judge Owens questioned L.A. Deputy City Attorney Michael Walsh’s accusation of “judicial overreach,” Walsh struggled to answer. He ultimately fell back on the argument that “there isn’t necessarily a constitutional solution to every social problem.” Walsh acknowledged that “there is every reason to be frustrated because it’s a vast and complicated problem. It is truly a crisis.” But apparently for the county, five people dying on the streets of Skid Row every day is not an urgent enough crisis to justify judicial intervention.
Arguing the other side was attorney Matthew Umhofer, representing the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, which brought the suit against the city and county to force action on homelessness. He quoted testimony from L.A. Councilmember Kevin De Leon, who told Judge Carter that Skid Row is “an open air prison for marginalized people, particularly people of color.” Umhofer insisted the conditions there pose “an immediate danger” and urged the judges to uphold Carter’s order. He dismissed the city’s and county’s arguments that homelessness should be left to the politicians to solve. “They are flailing and they are failing,” he declared. “They are failing on an epic level.”
Another perspective was offered by attorney Shayla Myers representing the homeless advocacy group LA-CAN. Myers didn’t defend the city or county, but argued that by focusing on Skid Row (an earlier order had demanded housing for those living under freeways) Carter would divert resources from other parts of the county. She claimed that would “exacerbate homelessness,” insisting that money spent to provide temporary shelter would be diverted from building needed permanent supportive housing. Umhofer countered that the city had produced only 489 units of such housing in the last four years, woefully inadequate to the needs of thousands “exposed to violence, disease and the elements” on the streets today.
The judges ended the hearing without announcing a decision. What’s beyond dispute is that the status quo is intolerable. Tens of thousands of people living in tents on sidewalks, parks, and beaches is a man-made disaster. It’s not just Judge Carter who’s frustrated — the public is clearly running out of patience. Voters are not going to sit back and watch L.A. continue to disintegrate. Winning an appeal won’t get the city and county out of the mess we’re in. If politicians don’t quickly make visible progress in getting people housed and off the streets, they’ll face a judgment from which there’s no appeal from angry voters fed up with epic failure.
Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and was city manager in Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org