Seek­ing bal­ance on tent cities, rights

L.A. coun­cil mem­bers may soften or­di­nances tar­get­ing the prop­erty of home­less peo­ple.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Gale Hol­land

Af­ter years of re­straint, the Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil is em­brac­ing ag­gres­sive tac­tics against home­less en­camp­ments, set­ting the stage for sweeps aimed at elim­i­nat­ing tent cities and makeshift shel­ters.

But amid wide­spread crit­i­cism that they have gone too far, some coun­cil mem­bers are talk­ing about soft­en­ing two or­di­nances that give author­i­ties wide lat­i­tude in con­fis­cat­ing and de­stroy­ing home­less peo­ple’s prop­erty.

The coun­cil mem­bers’ dis­com­fort re­flects the city’s long strug­gle in bal­anc­ing the public’s de­sire for clean and safe streets with home­less peo­ple’s ba­sic rights.

“It’s not per­fect,” Coun­cil­man Jose Huizar said Thurs­day af­ter the inau­gu­ral meet­ing of the coun­cil’s

new com­mit­tee on home­less­ness, which he chairs.

Ad­vo­cates say the mea­sures, ap­proved Tues­day and up for fi­nal pas­sage this week, of­fer noth­ing to help home­less peo­ple while open­ing the city to lit­i­ga­tion. City Atty. Mike Feuer said they are “more spe­cific and mind­ful of in­di­vid­u­als’ rights” than cur­rent law.

The mea­sures came in re­sponse to a near dou­bling of street camps and car camp­ing coun­ty­wide, and a dou­ble-digit in­crease in the city’s home­less pop­u­la­tion. Un­like in other cities— such as New York, with ex­ten­sive shel­ter sys­tems — 70% of L.A. County’s more than 44,000 home­less peo­ple sleep in the streets.

A fed­eral court in 2012 or­dered the city to stop de­stroy­ing home­less peo­ple’s unat­tended pos­ses­sions. The city be­gan giv­ing 72 hours’ no­tice be­fore con­fis­cat­ing prop­erty and opened a stor­age fa­cil­ity where home­less peo­ple could re­claim items for 90 days, but the camps kept get­ting big­ger and more elab­o­rate.

The new mea­sures— one gov­ern­ing streets and side­walks, the other parks— al­low author­i­ties to take peo­ple’s prop­erty even if they have not left it unat­tended.

They al­low the city to con­fis­cate and de­stroy “bulky” items, such as so­fas and mat­tresses, with no warn­ing. Author­i­ties can im­pound smaller items with 24 hours’ no­tice, though ad­vo­cates for the home­less com­plain the city’s only stor­age fa­cil­ity is on skid row.

“It’s in­cred­i­bly dra­co­nian,” said re­tired UCLA law pro­fes­sor Gary Blasi, who has stud­ied home­less­ness ex­ten­sively and has rep­re­sented home­less vet­er­ans in lit­i­ga­tion against the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs. “It’s the kind of thing you’d ex­pect in a lit­tle South­ern town.”

Coun­cil­man Mike Bonin pro­posed drop­ping the or­di­nances’ mis­de­meanor penalty for block­ing streets and side­walks, and delet­ing “per­sonal” prop­erty— such as lug­gage, back­packs and med­i­ca­tion— fromthe list of items that can be seized. “I think we need to be kin­der and gen­tler,” Bonin told the full coun­cil Tues­day. The home­less­ness com­mit­tee is con­sid­er­ing his pro­posal.

Carol Schatz, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral City Assn. of Los An­ge­les, said the or­di­nances are a “com­mon sense” re­sponse to the enor­mous en­camp­ments. “The courts could not have en­vi­sioned the ex­treme na­ture of the trash and fur­ni­ture that have ended up on the city’s public side­walks,” she said in a state­ment.

In hous­ing-pinched Los An­ge­les, most of the home­less pop­u­la­tion has nowhere to go but the streets. “We’re full ev­ery night,” said Larry Adam­son, head of skid row’s Mid­night Mis­sion.

“Many of our home­less have been ap­proved for hous­ing; it’s try­ing to get them in to hous­ing,” said San Pe­dro com­mu­nity ac­tivist Karen Cae­sar.

On KCRW’s “Press Play,” Coun­cil­man Joe Bus­caino, a for­mer Los An­ge­les po­lice of­fi­cer, de­scribed the dilem­mas he faced with home­less peo­ple in the street.

“What we have found is they will move to another lo­ca­tion up the street, down the street,” Bus­caino said.

Host Madeleine Brand said: “But it sounds like you’re just ad­mit­ting right there this is kind of a whacka-mole sit­u­a­tion.”

Replied Bus­caino: “That’s what we are pre­sented with on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions.”

Mem­bers of the home­less­ness com­mit­tee called for lo­cat­ing ser­vices around the city and open­ing emer­gency shel­ters, tran­si­tional hous­ing, showers, re­strooms and stor­age.

“Hous­ing only is not enough,” Bonin said.

“Some do want to be on the side­walk, but there are those who want some help,” said Coun­cil­man Cur­ren Price. “We have to do a bet­ter job.”

Later this year, L.A. hous­ing of­fi­cials say they will reach a con­struc­tion mile­stone that will al­low the city to again press its street camp­ing ban.

Un­der a 2007 court set­tle­ment, en­force­ment was sus­pended un­til the city could build 1,250 units of sup­port­ive hous­ing for the home­less, with half of those units down­town. The set­tle­ment fol­lowed a fed­eral court rul­ing that city home­less sweeps amounted to cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment.

City of­fi­cials say author­i­ties will use dis­cre­tion in deal­ing with vul­ner­a­ble home­less peo­ple. Blair Besten, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of down­town’s His­toric Core Busi­ness Im­prove­ment Dis­trict, said break­ing up camps will help the home­less as well as the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

“We’re find­ing more peo­ple hid­den away in en­camp­ments and pass­ing away,” Besten said. “There’s a sen­si­tiv­ity now in the city’s ap­proach.… We’re com­ing back to the mid­dle ground.”

Pho­to­graphs by Katie Falkenberg Los An­ge­les Times

A SMALL TENT EN­CAMP­MENT at MacArthur Park in Los An­ge­les. There has been a dou­ble-digit in­crease in the city’s home­less pop­u­la­tion.

CHARLES SMITH has an apart­ment, but he keeps some be­long­ings in a tent un­der a 101 Free­way bridge.

SOME OF Smith’s pos­ses­sions. New or­di­nances al­low the city to con­fis­cate and de­stroy “bulky” items.

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