Los Angeles considers restrictions on where homeless people can sleep

The Los Angeles City Council is considering major restrictions on where homeless people can sleep. The effort comes following a ruling against the City of Boise by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court said that local governments cannot criminalize sleeping on sidewalks, in parks or other public places if there are no places for homeless people to go. The 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

Introduced by Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, the measure would bar people from sleeping within 500 feet of schools, parks or daycare centers. People also cannot sleep on sidewalks near homeless shelters or other similar facilities that serve homeless people. In addition, people cannot sleep near bike paths, in tunnels or on bridges designated as school routes. Public areas with signs barring trespassing or setting closing times for safety or maintenance purposes are also off limits. Finally, no sleeping will be allowed on the sidewalks near large public venues, like sports arenas and convention centers.

Los Angeles used to have a citywide ban on sleeping in public places. Based on a court ruling in 2006, the city had to allow people to sleep on sidewalks between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. This requirement would be in effect until an additional 1,250 supportive housing units are built. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has asserted that enough new housing has been built and that the city can begin enforcement of the sidewalk sleeping ban again. However, police have generally not enforced the sidewalk sleeping ban except during the day and in cases where doorways and driveways have been blocked.

The city measure would bar people from sleeping within 500 feet of schools, parks or daycare centers.

In the Boise case, the 9th Circuit said that jailing or fining homeless people violates the Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The 9th Circuit said that, “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people from sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false pretense that they had a choice in the matter.” 

However, the 9th Circuit also qualified its decision, saying, “even when shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissable.” This means, for example, that local governments could ban outdoor sleeping in cases where public safety may be an issue. Senior assistant city attorney Valerie Flores noted this when she told the City Council that their measure is defensible. She said that the current laws, “would benefit from modernization, clarification, and a better balance between the competing needs of persons using the public right-of-way.”

Just a month ago, the Los Angeles City Council extended severe restrictions on where people can sleep in their vehicles. The restrictions are similar to those now being considered for those sleeping on sidewalks. It bars sleeping in parked cars in residential areas or near schools, parks and daycare centers. The City Council agreed to allow “safe parking” areas as a compromise. These are lots where homeless people can park safely and have access to restrooms. The lots are also served by outreach workers who help connect people with social services.

The Los Angeles City Council extended severe restrictions on where people can sleep in their vehicles, including parks.

Advocates for homeless people have pointed out that the city’s efforts lag far behind the scale of the need. There are currently 180 safe parking spaces, and it is estimated there will be 450 spaces by next year. This is a drop in the bucket compared with the need. About 9,500 Los Angeles residents are currently sleeping in about 5,700 vehicles around the city.

The restrictions on sleeping in cars do not apply to commercial and industrial areas of Los Angeles. Nonetheless, new parking restrictions are popping up in these areas as well. Overnight parking bans have been instituted on hundreds of blocks throughout the city, including many in commercial and industrial zones. These local overnight bans are granted by the City Council at the request of individual council members. Some of these are for good reasons, such as limiting large trucks from parking in narrow streets and alleys. Most, though, are aimed at restricting access to homeless people looking for a place to sleep.

If the restrictions on sleeping in public get passed by the City Council, there will be few places in Los Angeles where homeless people can sleep without fear of arrest. It also sets a troubling precedent for other cities to try and work around the 9th Circuit’s ruling against criminalizing homelessness. Advocates for homeless people in Los Angeles will surely challenge the measure in court if it is enacted by the City Council.

The City of Boise recently requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the ruling against bans on sleeping in public. If the Supreme Court rules for Boise, then communities across the country can keep their bans on public sleeping. However, the Supreme Court could uphold the 9th Circuit’s ruling that arresting homeless people for sleeping on sidewalks is cruel and unusual punishment. If that happens, all communities across the country, not just those in western states, will have to suspend enforcement of public sleeping bans.