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Appeals court overturns order to house homeless on L.A.'s skid row

The appeals court found extensive error by Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing a major lawsuit about the problem.
Image: A man walks past tents housing the homeless on the streets  in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles on April 26, 2021.
A man walks past homeless people's tents on skid row in downtown Los Angeles in April.Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images file

LOS ANGELES — The 9th U.S. Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned a federal judge's sweeping order that required the city and county of Los Angeles to quickly find shelter for all homeless people living on skid row downtown.

The appeals court found extensive error by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing a major lawsuit about the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles.

The appeals court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring most of their claims and that Carter based his preliminary injunction on claims and theories that the plaintiffs had not made.

Skip Miller, the lawyer representing the county, said he was "grateful" that the 9th Circuit ruled in the county's favor "by vacating the district court's sweeping injunction based on an abuse of judicial discretion."

"The county will continue with its massive efforts to address homelessness, as it has all along," he said. "We appreciate where Judge Carter is coming from and look forward to working with him to find a solution to this lawsuit."

The LA Alliance for Human Rights, which brought the suit, vowed to continue fighting homelessness throughout the city.

"We are pleased to see that the 9th Circuit has identified a pathway to hold the City and County accountable for their failed response to LA's homelessness crisis," the organization said in a statement.

"The court issued a narrow ruling this morning focused on procedural steps in the case but not the underlying law," it continued. "We are greatly encouraged because the issues identified can be quickly addressed and we look forward to returning to Judge Carter's courtroom in the coming weeks."

Carter's 110-page order, issued in late April, slammed local officials' inability to restrain the unprecedented growth of homelessness, which has spread encampments into nearly every neighborhood in the region.

"All of the rhetoric, promises, plans, and budgeting cannot obscure the shameful reality of this crisis — that year after year, there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year, more homeless Angelenos die on the streets," Carter wrote in his ruling.

The order gave the city and the county 180 days to house homeless people on skid row and to audit any spending related to the crisis of people living on the streets.

The lawsuit was brought by a coalition that includes business and property owners, landlords and others who allege that inaction by the city and the county has created a dangerous environment.

The appeals court said Carter's order was premised on his finding that structural racism was the driving force behind the Los Angeles homelessness crisis and the disproportionate impact on the Black community. But it said none of the plaintiffs' claims were based on racial discrimination.

"To fill the gap, the district court impermissibly resorted to independent research and extra-record evidence," the appellate decision said.

More than 66,400 people were homeless in Los Angeles County as of January 2020, 41,000 of them within city limits. While the homeless population was once largely confined to the skid row area, rows of tents, cardboard shelters, battered RVs and makeshift plywood structures are now familiar sights throughout the country's second most populous city.