A Path Toward Progress: Why Los Angeles Needs a Consent Decree

When it comes to homelessness in Los Angeles, what’s at work isn’t working. The unhoused continue to die on our public streets and sidewalks, and residents watch helplessly as our neighborhoods are transformed into stunning indictments of our failed social safety system. We need a different approach. We need to admit that the City and the County are structurally incapable of responding with appropriate urgency and vigor to our homelessness crisis, and must enter into a judicial consent decree under the supervision of U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter.

That is a difficult and a controversial thing for an elected official to say — — but this is a matter of life and death, and we need to confront the harsh reality that things are getting worse and that City and County governments are not nimble or forceful enough to respond on their own.

This isn’t because public officials lack the will or the desire to address homelesness. It is because the government in Los Angeles — by design — diffuses authority and responsibility, making accountability on an issue as complex as homelessness virtually impossible. And with no one really accountable for solving the problem, it is just getting worse as more desperate people slip through the cracks. Many City and County officials, with great effort and determination, have implemented successful projects and programs that are moving people off the streets and into housing. But it is still not enough; even as the number of projects and programs increase, homelessness increases even faster.

Many of the responses to homelessness are the County’s jurisdiction. Many others are the City’s jurisdiction. And many — but not all — of those responses are implemented through a hybrid agency, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which has little actual power and is hamstrung by the differing perspectives of its parent agencies, the City and County, which themselves do not speak with a singular voice.

As a result, no single person, legislative body, or level of government has the power or the authority to make the big progress on homelessness this crisis demands. But many people or organizations have the power or authority to slow or block progress. The City can commit to thousands of housing units or shelter beds, but a single councilmember can block building any of it in his or her own district. Or the County can decide not to provide the services. Or agencies can roadblock execution.

There is a better way. The City and the County should enter into a consent decree under the supervision of Judge Carter, who has been handling a federal lawsuit over homelessness. The group that brought the lawsuit should be part of the decree, as should unhoused people and their advocates. The decree should be clear and specific, with several phases, and if the City or County fail to meet any of the decree’s requirements, the judge should have the authority to compel action.

The terms of a consent decree would be negotiated among the parties, and I would urge that a decree include aggressive goals, and give the court maximum authority to see that they are met. If a councilmember fails to approve enough housing or shelter, the judge should be able to compel her or him to do so. If the County balks at providing services for a City project or program, the judge should be able to compel it do so. If the City is failing to meet its housing goals and has authority to commandeer vacant motel rooms and is not using it, the judge should have the authority to compel it to do so.

To be truly effective and long-lasting, the consent decree should require several things:

  1. Housing or shelter to get everyone off the streets, out of the elements, and into safety, immediately. Four people are dying on our streets every day. Living in thousands of encampments all over Los Angeles, they are experiencing untold trauma, are subject to physical abuse, and are suffering illness. It is sick and inhumane. Whether it is hotel rooms, pallet shelters, or safe camping sites with services, we need alternatives to the horrible, unsafe, unsanitary, dangerous status quo. This short-term phase needs to house and shelter tens of thousands of people.
  2. Real housing, with a real and permanent transition from the streets. The unhoused and their advocates fear that a government effort to shelter tens of thousands of people would quickly become what it has become in other cities — a lowest common denominator approach that becomes semi-permanent warehousing that never really helps people transition into real housing. A second phase of the consent decree needs to require long-term solutions, including housing and services — in all parts of the city — to keep people from falling back into homelessness.
  3. Permanent, systemic change. Anything short of a consent decree risks treating homelessness as a one-time problem instead of a systemic one. For instance, a settlement agreement that commits the City and Country to spending a certain amount of money or offering a certain number of shelter beds might help people who are unhoused today, but ignores the fact that people keep becoming homeless. In three years, once again we will see tens of thousands of unhoused people in Los Angeles. The systems that create and respond to homelessness have to be transformed or replaced. On a small scale, that means that social service programs and caseworkers need to be on duty 24–7, and that the City and County need a real-time tracking system of available housing and shelter. On a larger scale, that means LAHSA might need to be replaced by an agency with real power, not dependent upon the City or County for action. A consent decree should remain in place until systemic changes are in place.

Some might argue a consent decree would be an admission of failure. But faced with a crisis of such epic proportions, and such horrible human costs, asking for help is not giving up; it is taking responsibility and recognizing what we need to succeed. Entering into a consent decree is a voluntary act, a display of willing leadership. If we do not act, we risk Judge Carter placing the City and the County into receivership — which would accurately be seen as a failure of our local government. It is increasingly clear from Judge Carter’s justifiably impatient and angry tone that the option is on the table and it is up to us to act.

Some officials might say a consent decree is too extreme and might insist that “if only we do X or Y, we can solve this.” The reality is that no one is truly empowered to make X or Y happen on any significant scale. If the past decade — where goals have been identified, attention has been focused, plans and strategies have been developed, and money has been flowing — shows us anything, it is that our system is simply not set up for such robust and comprehensive collective action. For measurable and lasting results to happen, we need a consent decree, which can compel that action. Our history shows that a consent decree is sometimes necessary and worthwhile.

Consent decrees have brought significant, positive change to Los Angeles when traditional methods and systems failed. A consent decree forced the creation of thousands of units of affordable housing when the Century Freeway was built. A consent decree forced LA Metro to reverse its neglect of bus riders and make significant investments in our bus system in the 1990s. A consent decree forced dramatic improvement in water quality in Santa Monica Bay through massive investments and upgrades of the Hyperion sewage treatment plant. A consent decree forced dozens of major reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department following the Rampart scandal.

Tens of thousands of unhoused Angelenos need a path off the streets. Our neighborhoods need a path out of this dystopian crisis. The City and the County need a path into faster, more aggressive, more universal action. A consent decree is that path.

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