Stop pun­ish­ing the home­less

A move to im­pound any and all of their pos­ses­sions takes Los An­ge­les in the wrong di­rec­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Gary Blasi and Phillip Mangano o one likes

Nsee­ing side­walk en­camp­ments. In our ex­pe­ri­ence, no one likes liv­ing in them ei­ther — if they have any other real choice. In Los An­ge­les, there are enough shel­ter beds for less than onethird of home­less peo­ple, the low­est per­cent­age of any large city in the coun­try. That leaves nearly 18,000 peo­ple — an in­crease of 18% in the last two years — to fend for them­selves on the streets. Ev­ery hu­man be­ing must at some point lay his bur­dens down. But in Los An­ge­les, this is soon to be a crime.

The City Coun­cil has passed and Mayor Eric Garcetti is ex­pected to sign into law by July 6 two or­di­nances that would al­low the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment to im­pound any and all pos­ses­sions the home­less have that they can­not wear or carry on their backs. Vi­o­la­tors face the loss of nearly ev­ery­thing they own, crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion, jail and fines they can­not pay with money they do not have.

These or­di­nances com­mand seizure of not only tents, tarps, bed­ding and sleep­ing bags but also “cloth­ing, doc­u­ments and med­i­ca­tion.” The in­clu­sion of these items demon­strates ex­tra­or­di­nary cal­lous­ness and hos­til­ity to­ward the poor and dis­abled.

“Doc­u­ments” would in­clude the mil­i­tary dis­charge pa­pers of some of the 4,000 home­less vet­er­ans on our streets, as well as iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­pers of ev­ery de­scrip­tion. “Med­i­ca­tion” in­cludes drugs that, if stopped abruptly, could cause grave med­i­cal harm. Although there has been talk of amend­ments to elim­i­nate these items from the list of what po­lice can take and to drop the crim­i­nal penalty for vi­o­la­tions, Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Herb Wes­son in­di­cated that the or­di­nances could go into ef­fect be­fore that hap­pens.

Un­der the or­di­nances — one cov­er­ing streets and side­walks, the other parks — if the po­lice cite a home­less per­son for hav­ing pos­ses­sions on public prop­erty, the per­son must move them within 24 hours. But they can­not move their pos­ses­sions to any public prop­erty within the 486 square miles of the city. Where else can they take them? The city says it will pro­vide stor­age ( a 60- gallon garbage can), and ar­gues that there­fore the pos­ses­sions are not re­ally lost. But those fa­cil­i­ties are lo­cated only in skid row, and not easily reach­able for some.

What makes the lo­cal gov­ern­ment’s in­ac­tion es­pe­cially galling is that Los An­ge­les has done less than most ma­jor cities to end home­less­ness through the only proven tech­nique: “hous­ing first.” Un­der that model, ad­vo­cates place home­less in­di­vid­u­als into apart­ments, not tem­po­rary shel­ter, and pro­vide them with cus­tom­ized ser­vices. In more than 85% of cases across the coun­try, even the most dis­abled stay housed and off the streets.

Not only does hous­ing first move home­less peo­ple and their pos­ses­sions off the streets, scores of stud­ies across the na­tion and here in Los An­ge­les show that this strat­egy — and not crim­i­nal­iza­tion — is the most cost- ef­fec­tive ap­proach. The cost to taxpayers of peo­ple liv­ing on the streets and ran­domly ric­o­chet­ing through ex­pen­sive emer­gency rooms and jail cells ranges from $ 35,000 to $ 150,000 per per­son per year. The cost of hous­ing these same in­di­vid­u­als would range from $ 12,000 to $ 25,000 per year, even in pricey Los An­ge­les.

Cities across Cal­i­for­nia are im­ple­ment­ing hous­ing so­lu­tions and see­ing home­less num­bers de­crease and cost sav­ings in­crease. San Jose just re­ported a 14% de­crease in home­less­ness and sig­nif­i­cant cost sav­ings. Fresno re­ported a de­crease of 50% in home­less peo­ple on its streets since 2013. In fact, ev­ery com­mu­nity in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia other than Los An­ge­les that re­ports home­less fig­ures re­ported a de­crease from 2013 to 2015.

Los An­ge­les’ de­ci­sion to in­vest in force and in­tim­i­da­tion is guar­an­teed to fail. And it won’t be cheap. As Chief Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fi­cer Miguel San­tana re­ported to the City Coun­cil in April, about $ 87 mil­lion of the $ 100 mil­lion per year the city spends on home­less­ness al­ready goes to law en­force­ment. Do the math: That leaves just $ 13 mil­lion to ac­tu­ally help home­less in­di­vid­u­als, or less than one penny per day for each per­son in L. A. And much of that sum goes to out­reach ef­forts rather than hous­ing and treat­ment.

The mayor and 14 mem­bers of the City Coun­cil ( Coun­cil­man Gil Cedillo is the ex­cep­tion) seem to think they are on the right path. If you dis­agree, we’re sure they would love to hear from you.

Gary Blasi, pro­fes­sor of law emer­i­tus at UCLA, has been an ad­vo­cate and re­searcher on home­less is­sues in Los An­ge­les since 1983. He helps lead a part­ner­ship with the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion to end vet­eran home­less­ness in Los An­ge­les.

Phillip Mangano, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of United States In­ter­a­gency Coun­cil on Home­less­ness in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, is pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Amer­i­can Round Ta­ble to Abol­ish Home­less­ness.

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