Despite the Los Angeles City Council's Sept. 20 decision to reject a hard-fought compromise designed as a first step toward providing true help for downtown's homeless population, the ACLU of Southern California's efforts to advocate on behalf of this vulnerable population continue.
This spring, the ACLU/SC won a historic victory for homeless rights when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Jones v. City of Los Angeles that the city's anti-homeless ordinance was unconstitutional, and that arresting homeless people lying, sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk when no shelter space is available was cruel and unusual punishment.
Under the guidance of a court mediator, ACLU/SC staff worked with the offices of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief William Bratton and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to reach a compromise all could stand behind.
That compromise would allow police to enforce the city code only during the day in the area bounded by Central Avenue and Main, Third and Seventh streets, and allow the homeless who have no place else to go to sleep on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., provided they are not within 10 feet of any business or residence. During those times, police would not be allowed to round them up and jail them.
'Together we proposed a first step to solving L.A.'s homeless crisis and not criminalizing the homeless,' said Ramona Ripston, ACLU/SC executive director. 'Any day you can get L.A.'s leaders on the same page about homelessness is a hopeful one. But what's most unfortunate is that we are not helping those most in need. The fight over the city code should shame us with the fact that thousands of people are forced to sleep outside every night.'
But at the 11th hour Councilwoman Jan Perry, armed with a secret report from outside counsel, announced a proposal that the city buck the proposed settlement and continue with plans to appeal the 9th Circuit decision and monitor homeless activity for 90 days. All but three of the 15 council members agreed to this last-minute addition and voted against the settlement.
There are at least 88,000 men, woman and children homeless in Los Angeles County, with 8,000 to 10,000 of them located in downtown. The county provides enough beds to serve less than half the region's homeless. In lieu of adequate comprehensive services, the county's jails are routinely used to substitute for mental health facilities.
'Thoughtful negotiations unraveled in favor of halting progress on skid row,' Ripston said.
'We must ask ourselves what kind of Los Angeles we want to live in. I, for one, do not want to live in a society that metes out punitive punishment to the homeless simply because they have no other place to go. We will all be better served by more affordable housing, comprehensive mental health and other medical care and job training.'
The ACLU/SC, acting in conjunction with the National Lawyers Guild, originally filed the suit in February 2003 on behalf of six homeless persons. It was argued before the 9th Circuit in December 2005.