Why is homelessness increasing in Los Angeles?

According to a count taken in January, homelessness is up 23 percent across L.A. County over 2016, a total of more than 55,000 people.

News stories round up the usual suspects: high rents, low-paying jobs, drugs, alcohol, mental illness, domestic violence, and the release of prison or jail inmates without rehabilitation programs.

But one reason for the exponential increase in homeless encampments is rarely mentioned: In 2007, the City of Los Angeles made an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to allow people to sleep on the streets throughout the city.

It was a settlement of the Jones v. Los Angeles lawsuit, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the enforcement of L.A.’s law against sleeping on the streets was unconstitutional.

Municipal Code section 41.18(d) read, “No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way,” unless they were attending a parade.

The Ninth Circuit declared section 41.18(d) “one of the most restrictive municipal laws regulating public spaces in the United States.” The court noted that other cities, Las Vegas, for example, required some other conduct in combination with sitting, lying or sleeping—like blocking a public way—before it was a crime. But in Los Angeles, just the act of sitting, lying or sleeping on the street or sidewalk was illegal.

“Thousands of people violate the Los Angeles ordinance every day and night, and many are arrested, losing what few possessions they may have,” the court said. The six plaintiffs in the Jones case were among them.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.”

The city could have appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that it has a compelling reason to prohibit people from sitting, lying or sleeping on sidewalks. It also could have changed the law to make it more narrowly tailored.

But it didn’t.

Instead, it settled with the ACLU, agreeing not to enforce section 41.18(d) anywhere in the city between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. until another 1,250 units of housing for the chronically homeless were constructed, including at least 625 in the downtown Skid Row area.

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, was gleeful. “This is litigation that began as a way of asking the city to provide more shelter beds for homeless people,” she said. “What we end up with is 1,250 new units of low-cost housing with services AND the ability to sleep throughout the city when there are not enough shelter beds.”

Jan Perry, then a member of the City Council, said the settlement was a victory for downtown residents because street-sleeping allowances should not be made only for the 50-block area known as Skid Row.

By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU gave up the ability to use the Ninth Circuit ruling as a precedent for future lawsuits, but they can still sue.

So Los Angeles is still abiding by the Jones settlement even though in 2015, the city’s Housing and Community Investment Department reported that the requirements of the settlement had been met: 1,170 CH (chronically homeless) units had been built, including 656 in the downtown Skid Row area, with another 206 under construction, for a total of 1,376.

Now the city has gone even further. In November, voters approved Measure HHH, a parcel tax to fund $1.2 billion of housing, at least some of which will be reserved for the chronically homeless. And in March, L.A. County voters approved an increase in the sales tax to fund supportive services.

Homelessness is on the rise in Los Angeles despite all efforts, or maybe in part because of them. In the January survey, 12 percent of homeless people said they had been residents of L.A. County for less than a year.

Although there’s always a current political scapegoat for homelessness, it’s not new. “For decades, Skid Row has been home for ‘the down and out, the drifters, the unemployed, and the chronic alcoholic[s]’ of Los Angeles,” the Ninth Circuit wrote, quoting a city task force report from 1988.

Under the Jones settlement, L.A. officials consented to allow Skid Row conditions everywhere in the city. They didn’t have to agree to that, and they don’t have to hold to that agreement now.