EDITOR'S NOTE: Multimedia journalist Catalina Villegas spoke with the Westchester Playa Neighborhood Council's president about the ordinance. Click the arrow above to watch the video.
LOS ANGELES (CNS) — The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to ban homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers, following an hour-long disruption by opponents who interrupted the meeting with chants and shouts in the council chamber.
But because of a technicality, the council will have to vote on the matter again next week.
The council voted 11-3 Tuesday in favor of the measure after returning from the prolonged recess, with Council members Mike Bonin, Nithya Raman and Marqueece Harris-Dawson dissenting.
The ordinance is an amendment to the city's sweeping law regulating the location of homeless encampments. Municipal Code 41.18 prohibits sitting, sleeping, lying or otherwise obstructing the public right of way in several areas of the city.
Council President Nury Martinez called the disruption of Tuesday's meeting by activists "incredibly disturbing."
"What we witnessed here this morning unfortunately was really an attempt to try and keep us from taking a vote," Martinez said. "I think people were intent this morning to shut this place down and keep us from doing the very job that we were all elected to do."
The interruption began when Councilman Joe Buscaino, who first proposed the idea of an encampment ban near schools last year, rose to speak. Members of the audience started chanting, "Shut it down!" and prevented Buscaino from speaking. Martinez then announced a 15-minute recess that ended up lasting around an hour, while more than 50 people remained in the council chamber, chanting and making speeches accusing the council of criminalizing homelessness.
"That was the greatest standing ovation I've ever received in my career, but it also says a lot about a group of people who want to shut down democracy," Buscaino said after the chamber was cleared of protesters and the council returned to take the vote.
The council initially voted 10-1 in favor of the ordinance last month, with Bonin dissenting. Since that initial vote was not unanimous, a second vote was taken Tuesday. Ordinarily, the second vote would mark final approval of the ordinance, however, due to a procedural issue involving the motion that was approved Tuesday, the matter will have to return for one more vote next week, city officials said.
Opponents of the ordinance packed the council chamber Tuesday in a spirited public comment session prior to the disruption, heckling the council members, snapping their fingers and holding signs that read, "Repeal 41.18."
The law already bans encampments in the public right of way within 500 feet of "sensitive" facilities such as schools, day care facilities, parks and libraries — but only if each specific location is designated by the council for enforcement.
The new amendment is a blanket ban on encampments within 500 feet of all schools.
Although Buscaino originally proposed the idea last year, it never gained traction. But the issue was revived earlier this year, in part at the urging of Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who said teachers, principals and parents have expressed concerns about homeless encampments near campuses.
"I've seen elementary schools with conditions that none of us as parents would find acceptable for children. Individuals with mental illness, some of them absolutely unclothed, shouting profanities in the listening ear of children," Carvalho told the council previously.
Council members who supported the ordinance pointed to keeping kids safe, with Councilman Mitch O'Farrell pushing back against the protesters and claiming it is a false narrative that the unhoused have nowhere else to go. He said the city doesn't do sweeps, has various successful and robust programs to serve the unhoused and is ramping up temporary shelters in his district.
"I'm going to stand up for this council," O'Farrell said. "Everyone here is compassionate, deeply caring of people who are the most vulnerable among us. I'm not going to buy into this rhetoric that we're monsters, that we're murderers or anything like that. It' s all nonsense. I'm just not going to accept that false narrative any longer. We should never accept it at all."
But Bonin argued that the ordinance is based on a false premise that unhoused people are refusing to go indoors and that the city has ample space for them. He claimed that 60% of people living on the streets of Los Angeles can't find shelter, referring to a lawsuit that the city settled in April.
"This is not a question of whether or not you approve of having encampments near schools," Bonin said. "Nobody wants encampments near schools or daycares. Nobody wants encampments anywhere."
He called the ordinance a "distraction from where our focus needs to be," draining time and energy away from tangible steps to end homelessness. Bonin received a standing ovation following his remarks.
People who violate the ordinance face an infraction or citation, but "a person who willfully resists, delays or obstructs a city employee from enforcing this section or who willfully refuses to comply after being requested to do so by an authorized city employee" can face higher fines and a misdemeanor charge, according to the ordinance.
Outside City Hall on Tuesday, Dwayne Hollis and Ruben Garcia, two members of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, stood next to a sign that read: "41.18 = Death." They had set up snacks on a bench for their group ahead of the meeting. Hollis, a Vietnam War veteran who has experienced homelessness, called the ordinance a byproduct of an unfair fight between the rich and the poor.
"The main thing is, (the city) let the homeless thing get out of hand, and now they're trying to take the bull by the horn," Hollis told City News Service.
Garcia, who works in the film industry, doubted that the city would be able to enforce the ordinance because of the number of unhoused people living on the streets.
Neither believed the ordinance was a viable solution to the city's homeless issue.
"So it's just all a show," Garcia told CNS. "They're putting on a little show because they can't enforce it. Because there's tents and encampments in MacArthur Park, downtown, the Valley, Hollywood. There's tents everywhere. So good luck being able to enforce that law. They won't be able to enforce it. Because what are they going to do, arrest people for being homeless?"