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This type of ordinance, criticized as turning unhoused residents into criminals, has been tried before in other communities with little success.
CULVER CITY, Calif. — A new anti-camping ordinance aimed at clearing out homeless encampments has been met with fierce criticism from leaders and residents who say it will displace the most vulnerable to make way for gentrification in this rapidly changing city.
Council members in Culver City, where a new 4.5-acre Apple campus has been proposed and where the median price of a home is just shy of $1 million, voted earlier this week to ban tents and makeshift structures in public spaces, a step other nearby cities have tried only to be stopped by legal challenges.
With more than 170,000 people living in tents and cars and sleeping outdoors on sidewalks and under highway overpasses, California is the epicenter of the nation’s homeless crisis, yet few, if any, communities have been able to make a significant dent in the number of unsheltered residents living within their borders.
A 2018 federal court decision stemming from an Idaho ordinance found that criminalizing homelessness, including prohibiting sleeping in public, violates the U.S. Constitution and amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” if no shelter beds are available.
Proponents of the Culver City ordinance say the city must stay in lockstep with surrounding communities to prevent more unhoused people from taking up residence on its streets.
But opponents say the ordinance has been rushed and will criminalize already marginalized people, especially Black and Latino residents who are more likely to experience homelessness.
They also point out that where Los Angeles’ ordinance is specific to areas near schools and day care centers, Culver City’s applies to the entire city, which could prompt legal challenges.
“I am very disappointed,” said Culver City council member Yasmin-Imani McMorrin, who was one of two dissenting votes on the six-member council. “I feel this is an incredibly harmful policy that doesn’t add anything other than punitive measures.”
Several homeless people who would be affected by the ordinance say they prefer living outdoors than in a shelter, and that they won’t go voluntarily.
On a recent windy afternoon, Roscoe Billy Ray Bradley Jr. swept the sidewalk he has called home for more than a decade. When asked if he was aware of the new ordinance, he shook his head. When asked if he would voluntarily relocate, he bristled.
“They can’t take my tent. That’s my personal property,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Nearby, Walter Lindsey cleared debris from his encampment under a busy freeway overpass. He moved to Culver City from downtown Los Angeles two weeks ago and said he prefers the area’s “relaxed” environment to the “depressing” scenes of skid row.
He now lives behind a makeshift wall of plastic tarps and cardboard boxes near Bradley’s encampment. The two have tasked themselves with sweeping the sidewalk daily to allow for foot traffic and to deter police from complaining about their belongings.
Like Bradley, Lindsey was not aware of the new ordinance and does not have a backup plan should he be asked to relocate.
“I guess I gotta prepare them,” he said of his unhoused neighbors.
“As long as the weather is fine, I’d rather be outside than cooped up inside a shelter,” he said. “It’s too depressing.”
During a heated city council meeting Monday night, officials said the ban would not be enforced until the city meets key goals, including opening a designated camping site where unhoused residents can set up their tents and the conversion of 73 hotel and motel units into permanent and interim housing.
Combined, the two programs would add roughly 100 beds for unhoused people. According to the 2022 homeless count, some 350 people live on the streets of Culver City.
“Continuing to criminalize people for being in poverty, for struggling, has never gotten anyone out of poverty and never will,” said Bryan “Bubba” Fish, who sits on the city’s homeless advisory committee. “And yet, we continue down the same path.”
There is no clear time line for when the housing units would become available, according to the city, and officials have not determined who would be tasked with clearing out the encampments and what enforcement measures, such as fines and arrests, would be used if people refuse to relocate.
“We are putting the cart before the horse,” said Culver City Council member Freddy Puza, who voted against the ordinance. “I’m not trying to be intentionally vague — I just don’t know what the next steps are.”
In neighboring Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass has spent much of her first two months in office issuing emergency orders aimed at quelling the ongoing homeless crisis.
Bass told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in December that her plan to move homeless people into rooms immediately will not “address everybody, but it is going to address, hopefully, a significant number.” She said people would not be forced to move, but sanitation crews would stand by to clean up areas after people have left.
Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness on her first day as mayor and said she intends to move more than 17,000 homeless people into interim and permanent housing during her first year in office.
Since then, she has issued emergency directives to free up surplus and unused properties for housing, clear encampments under the city’s Inside Safe program and pushed for a $50 million emergency fund that would pay for homeless initiatives.
According to the 2022 homeless count, more than 69,000 people were unhoused on any given night in Los Angeles County, a 4.1% increase from 2020. About 42,000 were within the city of Los Angeles, where public frustration grew as tents proliferated on sidewalks, in parks and under freeway overpasses during the pandemic.
Bass’ emergency declarations appear to have created a domino effect in neighboring cities, like Santa Monica and Culver City, which have started to issue their own proclamations in recent weeks.
But the push to clean up the most obvious signs of homelessness has not addressed what many experts say is the root cause of the crisis: a shortage of affordable housing.
“Nobody should have illusions that all of a sudden encampments are going to come down,” said John Maceri, CEO of The People Concern, a service provider. “It’s going to take a minute. This is 50 years in the making.”
Alicia Victoria Lozano
Alicia Victoria Lozano is a California-based reporter for NBC News focusing on climate change, wildfires and the changing politics of drug laws.