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Los Angeles wasn’t “addressing this problem with any urgency”

Los Angeles has been ordered by a federal judge to “humanely” move all homeless residents away from freeways and into shelters—and the city and county have less than one week to comply.

Under a preliminary injunction issued this afternoon, which applies to the city and county of Los Angeles, anyone camped in the “vicinity” of freeway overpasses and underpasses and near entrance and exit ramps must be given shelter or “an alternative housing option,” such as a safe parking site or hotel or motel room.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter said it was “unreasonably dangerous” to allow people to live in areas that may be contaminated with lead and other toxins or that carry increased risk of being injured or killed in a car crash or earthquake.

He said he was compelled to intervene because neither the city or the county appeared “to be addressing this problem with any urgency.”

Once the city and county meet all of the requirements in the preliminary injunction, they will be able to enforce anti-camping laws in these areas, he said, though it’s not specified how many feet or miles from freeways the order would be enforced.

The judge said he wants to hear input from the city and county and would consider an alternative plan or agreement before the injunction is scheduled to go into effect at noon May 22.

“There is no order,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters this evening. “We hope in the coming week we can come to a common agreement.”

In 2018, Carter issued a similar ruling in Orange County when he ordered officials to immediately house 1,000 living in tent camps in the Santa Ana River. As a result, Orange County cities committed to opening enough shelters to house all the camp residents.

One detail that’s not made clear in the preliminary injunction is where exactly the unhoused residents will go. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the city of LA has turned recreation centers into emergency shelters, which are currently housing 988 people, but cannot add more capacity due to social distancing guidance. The city is also negotiating leases with hotels and motels with a goal of housing 15,000 at-risk homeless residents, but currently only 1,850 rooms are filled.

For decades, Los Angeles has failed to provide enough shelter to house people living on the streets and in their cars. In 2017, a United Nations official who toured Skid Row called LA’s homelessness crisis a “tragic indictment of community and government policies.”

Complying with the preliminary injunction would require a massive undertaking, mostly because Los Angeles County is so large and is traversed by so many freeways. Los Angeles is home to an estimated 974 miles of state and federal freeways traveling through the 4,751 square-mile county. Last year, a point-in-time survey counted 58,936 homeless residents, 44,214 of whom were unsheltered.