It’s time to consider the consequences of criminalizing the homeless
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
While the great homeless debate continues to inspire both citizen vigilantes and Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office to enforce the more than 24 Los Angeles ordinances against homeless people, the city agreed on Aug. 12 to pay $1.1 million to settle a suit with lawyers who successfully challenged a municipal ordinance prohibiting people without shelter from sleeping in their vehicles.
Then, just this past week, the Los Angeles City Council passed two more narrowly tailored ordinances outlawing people from sleeping in campers on public streets, including this statute for San Pedro:
RESOLVE, pursuant to Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) Section 80.69.4 and California Vehicle Code Section 22507, to hereby prohibit the parking of vehicles that are in excess of 22 feet in length or over seven feet in height, during the hours of 2:00 AM and 6:00 AM, along West 25th Street between the City boundary on the west and South Patton Avenue to the east.
The city’s $1.1 million payout comes as it enforces an ever-growing list of new laws against homelessness and homeless encampments as they’ve began to creep into residential neighborhoods over the past several years—a consequence of the lack of planning foresight when the encampments at more secluded areas like Harbor Regional Park or the railroad underpass near Lomita Boulevard and the 110 Freeway were cleared out. These and many other actions in Council District 15 appear to have been ordered by Joe Buscaino via the Los Angeles Sanitation Department with the help of Los Angeles Police Department, without any regard to where these homeless people would then move. And move they did, right down the street to residential areas of Harbor City, San Pedro and Wilmington.
Lawyers like Carol Sobel have warned that the new laws, which make it easier to dismantle camps and dispose of homeless people’s property, are unconstitutional. This seems to be the opinion of the Department of Justice, which recently won a case against the City of Boise, Idaho.
Sobel says the settlement is one of a half-dozen agreements the city has reached with lawyers who brought civil rights challenges to recent police crackdowns on homeless people. In other words, Los Angeles is willing to pay millions in legal fees while still trying to criminalize poverty and then admitting, “being homeless is not a crime.” It just appears that everything a poor person does in public has become a crime.
Researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Law gathered information from 58 California cities and found there are more than 500 anti-homeless laws among them.
According to the study, all 58 cities have daytime laws that criminalize four kinds of basic activities that can be applied to the homeless:
- Standing, sitting, and resting in public places;
- Sleeping, camping, and lodging in public places, including in vehicles;
- Begging and panhandling;
- Food sharing.
Locally, the vigilante group operating under the Saving San Pedro hashtag on Facebook, led by none other than George Palaziol — one of the newly appointed “stakeholders” in Buscaino’s Homeless Taskforce—has mounted his own campaign to enforce panhandling laws. He has enraged anti-homeless sentiments as he attacks the food sharing programs of religious and nonprofit organizations that don’t provide other services.
His companion, Joanne Rallo, the newly minted columnist for the nativist San Pedro Today, has gone on her own mission—confiscating homeless shopping carts and dumping the contents in trash containers. These actions and more, well-documented in their copious Facebook postings, are on the edge of legality. The tactics are confrontational, but without real solutions.
They resemble our own city councilman, who is still trying to be a “good cop” while not realizing that these actions jeopardize Los Angeles’ U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department funding for building supportive housing.
If the Justice Department were to enforce sanctions against the city, as it did with civil rights abuse cases against the Los Angeles Police Department, the city could lose hundreds of millions in federal subsidies, plus millions more in legal fees. And, there would still be no timely means of clearing the homeless out of parks or business districts. In short, we are wasting precious tax dollars on policing and enforcement while jeopardizing millions in federal grants by continuing to do what historically doesn’t work.
From those who have studied this problem the most and from those who service the homeless community daily, the only solution to the current crisis is “shelter.” The housing-first model is the only one that has been proven to work, yet the city and our home-grown vigilantes want to pretend that we can clean up this mess by chasing homeless people out of the visible public domain. Clearly, these people have lost their minds.
The evidence of the past two years proves that this approach is wrong and that the immediate solutions need to be explored to locate vacant public properties and to use these throughout the city as temporary transition centers.
To spread the responsibility more equitably, there should be at least one temporary transition center in every one of the 15 council districts. They should be placed outside of residential and business areas while still located close enough to public transportation. If managed by reputable service organizations, these centers will give safe and sanitary shelter while providing the social services necessary to sort out the variety of causes and issues afflicting these people. It is both humane and cost effective.
Temporary transitional centers provide an active solution for what can be done now, rather than later, and could be executed as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “state of emergency” for far less money than it would cost to build one 79-unit transitional apartment complex.
Continued reliance on enforcement only kicks the can down the pathway of failed past policies and solves nothing. It’s time for some different solutions and less cyber vigilantism.
Disclaimer—Nothing in this editorial or the pages of this newspaper should be taken as the official position of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council, of which I was elected president in 2014. Nor does it reflect the opinions of any of its board members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.