LOS ANGELES — U.S. District Judge David O. Carter's order to Los Angeles officials to sweep homeless people off skid row into shelters or housing is grounded in his conviction that a wrongheaded focus on creating permanent housing has perpetuated racism, spread encampments and caused the avoidable deaths of Black people.
But the complexities of the lives of homeless people on skid row suggest that shelters may be, at best, an incomplete and unwelcome solution to the homelessness that has persisted in the 50-block district downtown for more than 50 years.
"They're putting the smallest Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound," said skid row activist and poet Suzette Shaw. "They don't think we are real people."
Carter's injunction, which came in response to a lawsuit by downtown business and development interests, strikes at the heart of a debate that has roiled homelessness policy for decades: whether shelters and enforcement against street camps or permanent housing with counseling and other services can best end the long-running homelessness crisis.
The injunction pertains only to skid row and a buffer zone around it, where an estimated 2,000 people live in sidewalk tents and shantytowns. Carter wants every one of them offered shelter by Oct. 18 and pledges to uphold the constitutionality of anti-camping enforcement laws the city could use to remove homeless people if authorities choose. He also told Mayor Eric Garcetti to put $1 billion in escrow to fund the plan.
Lawyers for Los Angeles County, which was named in the case along with the city of L.A., said late Wednesday that they would appeal Carter's order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Skid row in its early days was an enclave of small hotels, movie theaters and cheap eateries that served transient workers in seasonal industries and nearby railroads. In the 1950s, it evolved into a place where alcoholics and other people down on their luck could get a meal and a bed. While other cities opened public shelters, L.A. relied largely on religious and other institutional missions.
In the 1970s, as veterans of the Vietnam War returned with addictions, followed by the crack epidemic, officials adopted a containment policy, concentrating missions, shelters and other homeless services on skid row and using roadblocks and police enforcement to confine homeless people to the area.
As the affordable housing shortage worsened following the Great Recession, encampments spread throughout metropolitan L.A., without visible improvement to the shantytowns and tent cities spread over block after block on skid row.
Garcetti and a Democratic majority on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted a $1.2 billion construction plan emphasizing permanent supportive housing — which includes long-term leases and counseling and other services. But the effort has been stalled by delays and cost overruns.