In a landmark legal settlement, the City of Los Angeles agreed not to limit the amount of belongings homeless individuals can have in or around Skid Row, and set new rules for what items can be seized and under what circumstances.
The decision has sparked division in Downtown Los Angeles, with some cheering the move and saying it protects the rights of homeless individuals. Others charge that it will worsen the already dirty and cluttered conditions on many streets and sidewalks, and sets a different standard for Downtown than other neighborhoods.
The settlement of the Mitchell v. City of Los Angeles case, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Wednesday, May 29, awards $645,000 to four plaintiffs and outlines new rules for the seizure and storage of property taken in a large swath of central Downtown. The settlement was negotiated by City Attorney Mike Feuer and will last for three years. According to the settlement, during that period the city “will not seize property as part of a cleanup of an area where homeless people’s property is located, absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, is evidence of a crime, or is contraband.”
The city must provide at least 24 hours notice of any cleanup, as well as a 30-minute warning for people to remove their belongings before a cleaning starts. Medication and identification left at the scene can be requested by the owner and must be given over by authorities. No cleanings are allowed while it is raining or below 50 degrees.
Jessica Lall, president and CEO of the business advocacy group the Central City Association, criticized the settlement. The CCA and other groups had urged Feuer not to settle the case, but rather to take it to trial. In March, the council voted 10-2 to settle, with only Downtown Councilman José Huizar and 15th District representative Joe Buscaino voting in opposition.
“The Mitchell settlement creates different laws for Downtown, which we believe is unconstitutional and sets the City up for further lawsuits,” Lall said in a prepared statement. “This settlement removes limits on personal goods and will worsen the serious public health conditions that are already present in Downtown and in the entire city.”
A spokesperson for the CCA said that the organization is exploring legal options to challenge the settlement. That includes the possibility of filing suit.
One attorney who represented the plaintiffs declined to comment, while another did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The settlement applies to an area bounded by Second, Eighth, Spring and Alameda streets. That includes the heart of Skid Row, but also busy commercial and residential portions of the Historic Core, Civic Center and Little Tokyo.
Under terms of the settlement, large items such as pallets, refrigerators, couches and other furniture can be seized. Anything taken during cleanups or when someone is arrested must be stored, and identification and other important documents must be available for people to retrieve within 24 hours.
Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Feuer, said in a statement to Los Angeles Downtown News that “the settlement provides the City the authority and flexibility it needs to address health and safety issues related to homelessness in the area covered by the agreement, and avoids the stricter limitations imposed by the court’s injunction on the City’s ability to clean and protect its public areas.”
The settlement is the outcome of several unfortunate options, according to Alex Comisar, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti. He added that, “It's time we break the cycle of litigation that keeps us from helping people in need.”
The Mitchell case started in March 2016, and was filed on behalf of four homeless individuals, including Carl Mitchell. It alleged that during cleanups and police enforcement activities, the city was seizing personal belongings, including medicine and legal documents, and destroying them.
A month after the suit was filed, District Court Judge S. James Otero issued an injunction blocking the city from seizing belongings without advance notice unless it was part of a criminal investigation or presented an immediate public health risk. The injunction applied to Skid Row and “adjoining areas.”
Shortly after the case was filed, the city approved Ordinance 56.11, which limited the amount of property someone on the streets could have to what fits into a 60-gallon storage unit. The ordinance also required that items seized be held for 90 days before being destroyed, and that neighborhoods be given advance notice before cleanings.
In the wake of Otero’s injunction, 56.11 was not put into effect in the specified zone.
Public commentary was divided and often heated as the city considered its options. The decision to settle also drew criticism from Kevin Murray, the president and CEO of the Skid Row service provider and shelter the Weingart Center. The settlement, he said, enshrines the status quo into law and will have “unintended consequences.”
The settlement comes as the city seeks to create housing for homeless individuals and address the spread of tent encampments in Downtown. The city spent approximately $30 million on citywide cleanings last year. The budget for the upcoming fiscal year increases that to roughly $50 million.
Huizar, whose 14th District covers most of Downtown, including Skid Row, had been the loudest voice on the Council against settling. In a statement to Downtown News, he charged that the city sets policy in reaction to individual suits, and instead should respond with a “comprehensive settlement with a multitude of litigants that will move us forward in a proactive path in helping us address our homelessness crisis.”
Huizar added, “I am opposed to the cat-and-mouse game the City and these same litigants continue to play, which will have a detrimental effect on setting sound homelessness policy for the City of Los Angeles.”