Mounting protests over the two new Los Angeles city ordinances, one for sidewalks and one for parks and beaches, that reduces notice for clearing homeless camps from 72 to 24 hours, adopted by the City Council June 23, have prompted Mayor Garcetti to order city departments to withhold sweeps until softening amendments are added. The mayor chose to let the ordinances become law without his signature. These decisions unhappily are mostly cosmetic.
The amendments that are under consideration are minor: mainly to exempt from seizure homeless persons identification documents and prescription medications. The most positive proposed amendment is to eliminate the misdemeanor penalty, carried over from the previous law, for failing to remove a camp on time. This can still go to warrant as a violation and have essentially the same effect.
The two laws, new Municipal Code Section 56.11 for sidewalks and Section 63.44 for parks and beaches, went into effect July 18 without the mayors signature. The Police Commission has agreed to hold off enforcement until the limited amendments are added and some new training of officers has taken place.
The laws provide that bulky objects, defined as anything that cannot fit into a 60 gallon garbage can with a closed lid, can be seized and destroyed without notice. The fine points in this appear to exempt tents on sidewalks. These can be set up between 6:00 pm and 9:00 am, but can be seized if they are there after 9:00 am. They cannot be set up in parks or on beaches at any time.
There are additional provisions that we have not seen reported in the press, even in the L. A. Times, which has had the most extensive coverage. For example, "Personal Property placed in Public Areas within ten feet of any operational and utilizable entrance, exit, driveway or loading dock may be removed and impounded at any time without prior notice." This would apply to the great majority of homeless on the sidewalks of Downtowns Skid Row, mostly exempting only those camped in alleys, under bridges, and on sides of buildings where there no doorways.
One provision of the new law reads as follows:
"Moving Personal Property to another location in a Public Area or returning Personal Property to the same block on a daily or regular basis shall not be considered to be removing the Personal Property from a Public Area. The City may remove and impound such Stored Personal Property after providing 24 hours written notice."
This seems to be saying that the City must at least follow the homeless person around and give them a new 24 hours notice every day to move on or have their possessions seized. It could mean that having once given them the 24 hour notice, then catching them again with anything on public property makes them fair game for seizing their stuff - including when they retrieve their possessions from city storage and take their things out onto the public city streets?
Which takes us to the citys offer of storage. Los Angeles has only one storage facility for confiscated homeless property: a 30,000 square foot warehouse called The Bin next to Skid Row in Downtown. Rina Palta on KPCC Radio July 1 quoted Alex Conedy, The Bins manager, as saying that his facility is already 95% full. Most of its storage is not seized belongings from camps, but voluntary storage by homeless people. So with an 85% increase in camps over the last two years and new laws for seizing homeless property it pretty well appears that the city has made no plans on where it plans to put any of this stuff.
UCLA law professor and homeless specialist Gary Blasi told Rina Palta, "Having your property taken miles away - and then being told you can go retrieve it, even though of course, you have no vehicle to put it in - that doesnt really solve the problem. . . . Its not that we should be trying to preserve peoples tents, blankets and sleeping bags, its that we should be helping them get into ordinary housing."
The basic limitations and even futility of the citys core approach in the new laws were inherent in the old ones. In June the city carried out a six-day, $66,000 cleanup of the extensive homeless camps that had grown up on the embankments of the Arroyo Seco between South Pasadena and Highland Park. The July 11 L. A. Times reported,
"But while the encampments along the concrete riverbed were cleared, none of the displaced people were given housing, advocates say. They simply scattered into the nearby streets of Lincoln Heights and Highland Park, or took to the hills of Elysian Park. ‰Û÷They just moved them around, said Monica Alcaraz, president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council."
What has residents and businesses upset is the spread of homeless camps from Skid Row out into the rest of the city in the last two years. Understandably nobody wants homeless people tenting next to their home, in the alley behind their house, on the bridge their children cross to go to school, in front of their store. And of course, police have a part to play along with the Sanitation Department in cleaning up homeless camps.
But the answer is not to have the police seize homeless peoples property and leave them on the street. There will be just as many homeless people there the next day, and the $100 million the city spent last year mainly doing this did not change anything. At least 30% of the homeless are mentally ill. All of them need housing. Those who have curable addictions or who could be employable cannot be cured or employed while living on the streets. As other cities have discovered, the first, and in the long run, cheapest, solution, is housing first. And for a good part of the homeless, that means housing with mental health care and case management for those who are initially resistant to leaving the street life.