Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
Tough new ordinances seek to seize the property of homeless people across the city. And there's likely more to come.
Los Angeles politicians want to crack down on homeless people crowding city sidewalks without seeming like heartless jerks. That will be a challenge.
Last month, the L.A. City Council overwhelmingly approved two ordinances that encourage the seizure of homeless people's property when it is deemed to be "stored" on sidewalks or in parks. A move to evict homeless people themselves could follow later this year.
"L.A. as a city has done less than any other major city in the country, with the possible exception of Houston… to actually house homeless people," says Gary Blasi, a lawyer with the Public Counsel law center and a longtime advocate for people without housing. "It's gotten out by far the worst, most punitive laws in the country, either on the books already or in the pipeline."
This year, the City of Los Angeles's homeless population was estimated to be 25,686, a 12 percent increase from 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's 2015 count [PDF]. Forty-three percent are unsheltered, and the number of tents, make-shift shelters and occupied vehicles rose an astonishing 81 percent, to 5,706. LAHSA's methodology, like that of other point-in-time counts nationwide, has shortcomings—in part because it relies on sending out a horde of volunteers to identify people who look homeless. But no one seems to dispute that encampments have in recent years sprung up across the city in huge numbers. While some business owners and residents want homeless people off the streets and out of the parks, advocates say they will remain outside as long affordable and permanent supportive housing is scarce.
“These ordinances needlessly penalize homeless persons forced to live in public space," emails Heather Maria Johnson, who leads the ACLU of Southern California's Dignity for All Project. "Using law enforcement to solve the homelessness crisis is extremely costly and will ultimately fail because of the severe lack of housing and shelter resources in Los Angeles.”
Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times that he would not immediately enforce the new measures on "stored" property even though a spokesperson had previously conveyed his support. Instead Garcetti, who has been criticized for equivocating when confronted with controversy, will allow the ordinances to become law without his signature, while encouraging the City Council to adopt amendments that reduce penalties and bar personal items like medications and documents from being seized.
In a letter to the Council, Garcetti wrote that "the City must balance the need to maintain its sidewalks with the rights of people who have no other choice but to live on them. In my view, the ordinance does not adequately achieve the proper balance." The new ordinances―which, again, he is allowing to become law―actually state, explicitly, that "documents" and "medication" are subject to seizure.
Blasi, who contends that Mayor Garcetti lacks the authority to bar police from enforcing the ordinances, says that "there's a kind of callousness and hatred that's built into that decision to include that language."
Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association and a fierce critic of homeless encampments, personifies that animus. Ryavec believes that homeless people in Venice, who frequently obstruct serene views in a neighborhood undergoing a long transition from outsider destination to luxury homestead, are more likely than in other parts of the city to be transients from out of state who are homeless by choice. He insists that many don't want housing. Some prefer the "lifestyle," he says, while others are addicts or mentally ill. He complains of noise, public urination, and general "third world effects," and says that the situation is dangerous too, pointing out recent home invasions attributed to homeless people.
Asked whether those who advocate a police crackdown are insensitive to the plight of homeless people, Ryavec takes a long pause. He would like more services and housing. But for now, it is a tribal affair.
"Hmm. I'll be frank with you that I put a priority on the safety of residents over the possibility that there might be some insensitivity to the homeless. The reason I do that is because almost without exception the violence that we've seen between the two groups has all been instigated by the homeless against the residents… The people that are at risk here on a constant basis are the residents. And I believe that a heavier hand has to be taken to restore public safety and neighborhood safety―and that some of that is going to be seen as insensitive."
Ryavec, a self-described liberal and environmentalist, feels persecuted, shunned by his City Councilmember and attacked by homeless advocates.
"It rises to the level of hate. I've had an online firebombing threat," says Ryavec, who himself briefly ran for a seat on the City Council. "We're called homeless haters."
Housed people, of course, also commit crimes. And Blasi says that while a higher proportion of homeless people in Venice and Hollywood might be from out of state, the evidence "suggests that in every area most homeless people are living not far from where they were last housed."
“The reaction to homeless people in Venice comes primarily from people who gentrified Venice, which always had a large number of homeless people. I don't think any of them should have been surprised,” he adds.
According to a recent LAHSA survey covering most of L.A. County, 81 percent of homeless people there were already living in California before they ended up homeless.
Greg Spiegel, a longtime legal aid lawyer who now serves as Mayor Garcetti's Homeless Policy Director, says there are two general categories of homeless people in L.A. About a quarter need permanent supportive housing―people with more difficult issues related to mental illness, physical disability, criminal records or long-term homelessness. But the bulk, three-quarters, are people who need to be rapidly rehoused after experiencing a crisis like losing their homes after losing a job, missing rent and then being evicted amid rock-bottom vacancy rates―people who have run out of couches to stay on.
Spiegel says that the city is developing programs both to prevent homelessness and to sustainably pull people off the street, including a countywide Coordinated Entry System that individually assesses homeless people to provide them services and longterm housing.
Homelessness policy has long been dominated by government and non-profits working in silos, he says, placing the burden on homeless people to "cobble together the patchwork of services and shelter and housing that they need to get their life back on track. And of course these are the very people in the worst situations in their lives, and the least able to do that kind of thing. And so it's no wonder we've had longterm homelessness as a result."
Progress, however, has so far been ephemeral. He points to a 2014 UCLA study, which found that L.A. was the least affordable rental market in the nation.
"We recognize we need to go upstream and prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. You can't keep having more and more people become homeless because it's just so expensive to house and serve people."
Blasi is unimpressed with the city’s efforts. "The mayor's office is adding nothing to those preexisting efforts of others, other than meetings and announcements," he e-mails.
Whatever the case, it remains unclear if the L.A. ordinances will withstand legal scrutiny. The sidewalks law, for example, defines "stored" property, in a feat of circular logic, as property which the city has deemed to be stored. Both laws prohibit people from moving their property to another "Public Area."
Indeed, both pieces of legislation seem at odds with a 2012 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling [PDF] against the city's effort to "seize and destroy with impunity the worldly possessions of a vulnerable group in our society." The new ordinances do make some concessions, however, including requiring that notices be posted publicly near the site of most "stored" property both before their seizure (unless they are hazardous or "bulky," or in an area with a "clearly posted closure time" like a park) and after, and ensuring that seized items be held for 90 days before being discarded.
Ryavec welcomes the crackdown, and says that one of the ordinances was drafted by his group's attorney. But he faults Mayor Garcetti for not signing them, and complains the sidewalk measure "doesn't go as far as we would have liked to see." The ordinance, he says, allows homeless people to have too much stuff and requires too much notice before the property is seized. Either way, the city could very well be sued again if it seeks to enforce the new rules.
Down on Skid Row in Downtown L.A., one perhaps intoxicated man complains about black people in Spanish, another claims that he is an undercover CIA agent investigating police misconduct, and a woman shouts out words at seeming random and then spells them. Others wander in various states of alertness.
The Row is well over 100 years old, but its marginal status has been reinforced again and again by city leaders, who decided in the 1970s to concentrate housing and services for homeless people in a single area. This is known as the "containment strategy"—it aimed to isolate the homeless so as to stimulate development in a downtown that had, back then, given way to capital flight and sprawl. But today, Downtown L.A. is one of the city's hottest real estate markets, with a tide of specialty coffee shops and high-end lofts quickly spilling onto streets lined with rescue missions and single-room occupancy hotels.
The booming housing market and the resulting momentum for a police crackdown poses a major problem for people on the Row, including the many who are clear-headed and dealing with a plain rough situation. Take A.J., 56, a painter who says he can't find work and can't afford housing with his monthly $221 General Relief check. He sleeps on the street, or sometimes in a shelter bed.
"The obstacles? I would say right now the kind of work I do is kind of slow." A.J. doesn't think the people who live downtown much like Skid Row. Neither does he. He likes to walk around nearby gentrifying blocks for a respite from the mental illness, crack, meth and heroin that surround him. "They want to get rid of this, cause it’s kind of like a sore eye to them."
Mark, 31, says that he studied to learn a trade but still can't land a job. "I took HVAC," he says. "Like I said, the cost of living. I mean, you try to get a job, you need a place to stay cause you got to get cleaned up… You gotta have a place to stay."
Blasi vehemently disagrees with the notion that L.A.'s sunshine and beneficence attracts a large number of outside homeless people, and says that it is largely local poor people who lose their housing who end up homeless here. "South Los Angeles," a heavily black and Latino low-income neighborhood, he says, "repopulates Skid Row constantly."
Since 2013, the estimated number of white homeless people in the city has declined by 30 percent, and the estimated number of black homeless people has risen by 35 percent.
In June, Mayor Garcetti and the City Council celebrated the passage of a measure to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2020. It was, said Garcetti, an effort to lift up the "many Angelenos…still being left behind" as the "city's economic health continues to roar back." But empathy for the poor among local political elites (nearly all of whom are Democrats) often seems to reach its limits when it comes to the city's large and unsheltered homeless population, a troubling reminder of deep poverty and uncared for illness amidst the mansions of Brentwood and hip restaurants in Echo Park.
"George W. Bush would not do this stuff that the liberals in L.A. are doing," says Blasi. "Underneath all the glitter of Hollywood there's just more glitter. Appearances that cover an ugly reality, that's the stock-in-trade of this town."
Mark, the Skid Row resident, believes that outsiders treat his neighborhood like a freak show.
"A lot of people say they come down here to help our different missions and wanting to help the homeless," says Mark. "But I notice while they helping, and then I see them taking pictures… Why you got to take a picture every time you feed somebody? If you really want to help somebody you just help them. I don't need a picture."
Ryavec, for one, doesn't seem to want to gawk at homeless people. He wants them out of his neighborhood, and complains that the city allows the homeless to misbehave with impunity. In fact, the City of Los Angeles has spent the past decade using the Los Angeles Police Department in a futile and heavily contested effort to evict its homeless population from the streets―or at least to sweep them from desirable real estate. A recent city report [PDF] estimated that various city departments spent more than $100 million annually dealing with homeless people, as much as $87 million of which is spent on policing—a figure that does not include patrol officers' time.
In 2006, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-Police Chief William Bratton initiated the Safer Cities Initiative, which flooded Skid Row with police officers. The program, guided in part by Broken Windows architect and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow George L. Kelling, was supposed to pair tougher policing with increased social services. But Blasi, who researched the program in 2007 while a professor at the UCLA School of Law, says that the services mostly never came, and that the crackdown was draconian. He points to the District Attorney's Office, which he says refused to offer plea bargains to people arrested for selling drugs on Skid Row, where police engaged in widespread buy-and-bust operations. The result, he says, was about 1,000 low-level drug offenders from Skid Row facing potential sentences of two to four years in state prison. While Safer Cities still exists, the aggressive policing has, says Spiegel, since diminished.
The new "stored" property ordinances, however, could lead to a fresh wave of arrests, because unpaid citations lead to arrest warrants.
Spiegel agrees that the city's policies have so far failed. But he insists that's changing.
In the past, the city has been "swinging from one extreme to another," he says. "From heavy policing, which didn't do anything to end homelessness, to doing nothing, which didn't do anything to end homelessness… We need a balanced approach" that brings all those with a stake in ending homelessness together. "If we can just kind of stay calm and not be ruled by fear, and rush, we can do that."
It's still unclear if Garcetti, given his ambivalent support for the new "stored" property ordinances, agrees. As for Spiegel, Blasi emails, "I like him a lot. He's in a tough spot."
The city's 2012 courtroom defeat on seizing "abandoned" property, Lavan v. The City of Los Angeles, was just one of a handful of big federal court losses on anti-homeless ordinances. Last year, the city lost a separate lawsuit challenging an ordinance barring the use of vehicles as living quarters, the enforcement of which was targeted at those living in their vehicles in Venice. In 2007, it signed a settlement in Jones v. The City of Los Angeles after the Ninth Circuit ruled against an ordinance banning sleeping or lying on the sidewalk; it agreed not to enforce the ban until it built 1,250 units of supportive housing.
In Jones, the Ninth Circuit found that the city was effectively making it illegal to be homeless in places like Skid Row, reputedly the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States.
"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 court ruled. "So long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds, the City may not enforce section 41.18(d) at all times and places throughout the City against homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public."
The city, however, has signaled that it might seek to exit the Jones settlement, the linchpin of a series of legal protections for L.A.'s homeless. Maybe even this year. Recently, the city quietly announced that it is on track to meet its goal of creating the 1,250 new units of supportive housing required by Jones.
Homeless advocates contend that the city is counting unqualified units in its tally. Rushmore Cervantes, General Manager for the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, says the city has not yet decided how to proceed.
"It's really going to be a city policy decision as to how it is going to address the homeless issue post-Jones settlement, and how it wants to address those individuals who are on the streets at night," he says.
Cervantes tells CityLab that the city has already completed the 625 units on or near Skid Row required under the settlement, and are on track to complete the rest, 625 citywide units, by year’s end (a fact sheet he provided states September). After that, says Cervantes, "the city is no longer under the obligation to hold in abeyance the Police Department from enforcing the provision by which to remove people from the sidewalks and streets,” from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Becky Dennison, Co-Director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, says that many units in a spreadsheet that Cervantes provided to CityLab are disallowed under the settlement because they previously housed low-income and homeless people.
“So at least 239 of the units they are counting are not allowed, lowering their total to 417 in Downtown L.A.,” emails Dennison. “Still 208 short, with not one unit in development that we know of. Pathetic.”
Cervantes declined to evaluate Dennison's analysis. And no one seems to know what happens next. Rob Wilcox, a spokesperson for City Attorney Mike Feuer, echoed Cervantes, saying, "Once the City has fulfilled the settlement's requirement on housing unit creation, next steps would be a policy matter for the City Council and the Mayor." Garcetti spokesperson Jeff Millman declined to comment on Jones. Councilman Mike Bonin, who was involved in moving the controversial recent property ordinances and is now trying to amend them, says that once the units are built, "the city has to make a decision, do we criminalize sleeping on the sidewalk or do we do something different? For me, it's not a question. We have to do something different." Bonin says that the city will no doubt end up back in court if it tries to enforce the ban given the current lack of housing. "We need to come up with a way of being proactive in solving homelessness instead of being reactive to lawsuits."
Blasi agrees, saying that either a judge would need to agree with the city's accounting of new units for the settlement to be considered fulfilled or likely face a lawsuit if it tried to re-enforce the sleeping ban unilaterally. And even if a judge were to agree that the terms of the settlement had been met, that wouldn't stop new plaintiffs from filing a new lawsuit.
Carol Sobel, the civil rights lawyer who brought the Jones lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, reacted cagily when asked how homeless advocates would respond if the city announces that it has met the terms of the settlement. She says that if the city has plans on how to move forward, they haven't shared them with her.
"The city has produced lists… and we're looking at it," says Sobel, who has spearheaded multiple lawsuits on behalf of homeless people against the city. "I'm not talking about it until we figure out what our position is."
Ryavec calls the Jones settlement a "self-inflicted wound" that the city should never have agreed to, "which means that people can camp out on anybody’s sidewalk or parkway between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. anywhere in the city," he says, his voice incredulous. "That means Bel-Air. Pacific Palisades. You name the toniest neighborhood in L.A., and people legally can camp out there between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m."
He hopes the city, once it has completed the units, will "simply go in to the judge and say here are our 1,250 housing units, the settlement is now dead, and we can go back to enforcing no lying, sitting, sleeping. 24-7."
Wendell Blassingame, 64, a large and imperturbable man dubbed the "concierge of Skid Row" by L.A. Weekly, is seated before a King James Bible at his table in tiny San Julian Park one spring afternoon, offering toilet paper for runny noses and a list of practical services in one of the neighborhood's few green spaces. When speaking of the homeless people he spends his days among, Blassingame offers a mixture of tough-bootstraps love and understanding. But regardless of the bad choices some people make, he says affordable housing is simply in short supply. Skid Row, after all, is not just a collection of sidewalks where homeless people make their beds. It is a neighborhood with a large supply of cheap SROs that has rapidly dwindled, according to advocates, in the face of new development; it is not just the home base of Los Angeles homelessness, but for many poor people, their last defense against it.
"Skid Row used to be 40 blocks," says Blassingame. "And now it's pushed in to about 20 blocks because of the redevelopment and everything. We need more affordable housing that is correct and suitable housing for their income. Not just say ‘affordable housing,’ then when you apply for housing, you still can't pay rent because" it is still too high.
The city touting new supportive housing, says longtime activist Alice Callaghan, a former Catholic nun and current Episcopal priest, is a mere pretext to evict the homeless.
"The city talks as though there's a lot of housing in the neighborhood because it's reasonable then to send the police out," says Callaghan, a preternaturally multitasking advocate on Skid Row, where she also directs Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center for garment factory workers and their children. "Because now that people are on the sidewalk not because they lack affordable housing but because they're housing resistant, they're criminals, they're not good people, they're not like us," she says, describing the city's message. "And so they characterize the people on the Row in such a way that now it's okay to send the police out."
The results can be disastrous. In March, an unarmed homeless man was shot and killed by police under disputed circumstances.
Ryavec says that he would prefer a better social safety net to support people in need. But he and his neighbors can't wait for that tenuous possibility, he says, to eliminate what he calls "an existential physical threat to residents and visitors."
Blassingame says he's not sure where the city’s homeless might go if they are forced to leave.
"Do they have a concentration camp?" he asks.
They don't, though California does have a lot of prisons. Unfortunately for Ryavec, they are overcrowded and, like the City of Los Angeles, being closely scrutinized by federal judges.