Camping ban triggers fevered blowback at council meeting

At the City Council meeting on the evening of Monday, Jan. 23, the council narrowly passed Action Item 1 – the “introduction of an ordinance prohibiting camping in public places throughout the city.” The item eventually passed, as expected, with a 3-2 vote. Vice Mayor Yasmine-Imani McMorrin and Council Member Freddy Puza were the two “nay” votes.

Over 70 public speakers attended the meeting either in person or online, determined to have their voice heard, with the vast majority firmly against the ordinance. The meeting would eventually adjourn at 1:50 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

Prior to the meeting, there was an organized rally against the ordinance outside of City Hall. Culver City community members, Unhoused neighbors who have been victims of previous sweeps, Culver City for More Homes, Culver City Action Network, and Culver City Democratic Club all attended.

“An anti-camping ordinance would cause true harm to unhoused residents, and it is especially heartless and cruel to discuss sweeps during the coldest time of the year,” said Ndindi Kitonga, an activist with Palms Unhoused Mutual Aid (PUMA_LA), in a statement.

Speakers at the rally included former mayors Alex Fisch, Dr. Daniel Lee and Meghan Sahli-Wells.

Near the start of the actual council meeting, a staff update on the declared homelessness state of emergency revealed that staff are meeting weekly to get the forthcoming safe camping zone up and running. Services will include 24-hour security, weekly laundry and daily meals.

The main message from the 70+ public speakers, which included individuals with lived experience of homelessness, was that the ordinance is cruel when housing or viable alternatives such as safe camping are not yet readily available. Especially during the winter months which, even in California, can get painfully cold at night.

The perceived criminalization of poverty was justified with a statement from staff that the police department won’t issue citations, enforcement services will and only for repeat offenders. It was later clarified further, that citations won’t be issued at all until safe camping is available. Mayor Albert Vera and Council Member Dan O’Brien agreed with that.

Still, Council Member Puza said that the ordinance was “putting the cart before the horse,” and that it’s unfair to move people when there is nowhere to move them to.

When the item was raised and seconded, Puza attempted to raise a substitute motion, to provide services in place of the camping ban. However, city attorney Heather Baker said that it’s not an appropriate substitute and the original vote was taken, and passed 3-2.

Members of the public became irate throughout, at what they perceived as a cruel, unconstitutional ordinance that takes away human rights.

During a discussion regarding enforcement, Puza said that he believes enforcement should be contingent on a Care-First approach. Council member Göran Erikssen countered that there will be approximately 100 beds available when all programs are operational. At that point, enforcement should begin.

“We need more, we could do more, and these choices that we’re making right now are shameful,” said McMorrin.

The ordinance now passes back to staff who will craft the wording of the law regarding enforcement, while trying to make sure that safe camping and Project Turnkey are ready sooner rather than later.