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Congresswoman asks LA mayor to defend laws that criminalize homelessness

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The House Financial Services Committee convened in Los Angeles for a special meeting on homelessness

A ban with a backpack pushes a cart full of belongings down a street. A police car is present in the background.
In July, the city of Los Angeles reinstated a ban against sleeping overnight in cars in residential areas.
Photo by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston, asked the mayor of Los Angeles on Wednesday to justify local laws that she says criminalize homelessness.

Garcia was among a handful of federal lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee who travelled to Los Angeles to convene a special meeting entitled “Examining the Los Angeles Homeless Crisis.”

Referencing the city’s ban against sleeping overnight in cars in residential neighborhoods and its policy of seizing, storing, and throwing away property that homeless residents keep with them on the streets, Garcia asked the mayor about the golden rule.

“Can I ask you a question candidly? Will you take offense?” she said. “If you lost your job today, and you lost your house and lost everything and became homeless, would this be the way you would want to be treated?”

“No, of course not,” Mayor Eric Garcetti responded.

“We are looking at the amnesty of all those low offenses that built up... over the past years,” he said.

Last month, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Associated Press that he was working to erase old “quality-of-life” bench warrants for thousands of homeless residents. Warrants for minor offenses, he said, “get in the way of people’s recovery.”

But Garcetti gave no indication that he intended to change any city laws or policies, noting that they are needed to preserve public spaces and keep areas around encampments passable so resource providers and other social workers can access them.

“There’s a double heartbreak going on,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s the sheer number of people living in their cars, on their streets, and in shelters.” The second one, he said, is the “death of public spaces.”

The mayor was one of about a dozen public officials and nonprofit executives who testified at the hearing, which was held at the California African American Museum at Exposition Park.

Over the course of the three-hour hearing, speakers explained why the crisis has only gotten worse, with the homeless population ballooning 12 percent countywide this year.

“It’s fair to say that most average Angelenos feel it’s hard to believe that progress is being made,” said deputy mayor Christina Miller.

Over and over again, Miller and others pointed to the rising cost of rent, widening wealth gap, and decades of racist housing policies that made it nearly impossibly for black residents and other people of color to buy homes. Today, 33 percent of the homeless population is black. But black residents make up just 8 percent of the county’s total population.

They also laid out plans to continue placing unsheltered residents in transitional and permanent supportive housing. Last year, 21,631 people were placed into housing through local initiatives and an estimated 27,080 were able to reenter housing themselves.

The city and county are devoting billions of dollars to the problem. Measures H and HHH have generated $4.5 billion for homeless services and affordable permanent-supportive housing. The city alone has increased its homelessness budget to $462 million—25 times what it was in 2015, according to Miller.

The mayor says LA has lost out on the opportunity to build 20,000 more units of affordable housing because of cuts in state and federal funding totaling $20 billion over the past decade. He urged residents to be patient.

“You have to extinguish the belief that.. there’s some magic formula that within a few weeks or months this will disappear,” Garcetti said.

It will take time to end homelessness, but when it comes to eliminating old warrants for low-level offenses, Garcetti says it’s up to the courts and city attorney’s office. “To me, it can’t happen soon enough,” he said.