LOS ANGELES - A year ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stood with first lady Michelle Obama before a crowd of 900 in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza and pledged to end veteran homelessness in the city by 2016.
Six months later, Garcetti and the U.S. secretaries for Housing and Veterans Affairs led columns of volunteers, advance men and news media past the derelict lean-tos and ragged tents of skid row for the official homeless count.
But in the last month, the show of unity on homeless policy with federal agencies in the Obama administration has been fraying. Both the Department of Justice and a federal interagency task force have challenged efforts nationwide that have aimed to “criminalize” homelessness - something critics have accused Los Angeles city leaders of doing with a recent crackdown on encampments.
The federal task force discouraged cities from breaking up camps, saying such actions made it harder to get homeless people into permanent housing. In an Idaho case with potentially broader ramifications, the Department of Justice said banning people from sleeping in the street is unconstitutional.
By ignoring federal guidance, Los Angeles is undermining its position in court battles and jeopardizing future funding for homeless housing and services, experts said.
“This should be a shot across the bow to the city,” said Philip Mangano, former homelessness policy czar under President George W. Bush. “The mayor and the council need to be maximizing federal resources, not risking them.”
Garcetti declined to discuss his homelessness policies. Citing an unexpected surge in the number of veterans landing in city streets, the mayor last week extended his goal for ending veteran homelessness as late as the summer.
Spokeswoman Connie Llanos said the mayor will release a strategic plan to end homelessness in coming weeks, adding that he believes “dispersing camps is not a solution to our homelessness issue.”
City Councilmen Mike Bonin and Jose Huizar, who sit on the council’s homelessness committee, also declined to comment. Bonin, in a Huffington Post opinion piece, recently called for state and county aid to open “welcome centers,” specialized shelters and shared housing for homeless people in the city.
Huizar believes a new skid row outreach program he is helping fund will reduce homelessness and “could become a model we use elsewhere,” his spokesman said.
The city in July enacted new ordinances to make it easier to dismantle camps and impound and destroy homeless people’s property.
The city put the bills on hold while it wrestles with amendments, but Los Angeles police, citing other ordinances, have displaced from encampments hundreds of homeless people with nowhere to go. Officials say they are humanely balancing the rights of homeless people with the need to address a public health and safety crisis.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, composed of 19 Cabinet secretaries and agency heads, released a 12-page document saying sweeps are not a solution. Although the report does not address Los Angeles or any other community directly, homeless legal analysts say it targets the city’s policies.
“We strongly advise against communities dispersing people experiencing unsheltered homelessness on their own or in camps,” Matthew Doherty, the council’s executive director, said in a phone interview. “It disrupts the ability to engage and develop trusting relationships to help them on paths to permanent housing.”
“The city of L.A. is marching in the opposite direction at the moment,” said retired UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, a homelessness researcher and advocate who is now affiliated with Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law program.
In coming months, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to ask local homeless services officials to educate their communities against criminalization ordinances. Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said he would defer comment until HUD releases its guidance.
The City Council’s homelessness committee last week sought to “decriminalize” the new encampment laws by, among other things, striking misdemeanor penalties and fines for violations. Garcetti has said he welcomes the amendments, which still must be approved by the full council.
Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said the modifications, while welcome, fail to shift the city’s focus away from police suppression.
“The modifications are one small improvement in a broader plan to criminalize homelessness,” she said.
Said Mangano, the former Bush administration official: “Scaling up storing of possessions as opposed to scaling up housing is the wrong path. If the possessions would be in housing they wouldn’t be in the streets.”
Los Angeles, meanwhile, could be heading for a collision with the Department of Justice over its homeless camping ban, which prohibits sitting, lying or sleeping in the streets, on sidewalks or other public way.
Under a 2007 settlement, the city suspended overnight enforcement of the law until 1,250 units of housing were built. Officials have said they expect to meet the settlement terms as soon as next month, which could allow authorities to clear homeless camps entirely.
The Department of Justice in the Boise, Idaho, case said bans on sleeping in public are unconstitutional.
“Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity - i.e., it must occur at some time in some place,” the Justice Department argued in the federal case, which is pending. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
By stepping into the camping debate, government lawyers are warning other cities to treat homeless people more humanely or face consequences, homeless legal experts said.
“The city should sit up and take notice,” Foscarinis said.