This article was originally published in The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 21.
By 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, and earlier this week City Hall was poised to move in lock step on the issue. The police chief, the mayor, the city attorney and the ACLU had worked hard for weeks to reach a carefully negotiated settlement regarding L.A.'s draconian homelessness law, and we were finally ready to present it to the City Council.
Then, on Wednesday, that consensus collapsed into confusion as political calculation trumped compassion.
Armed with a secret report by outside lawyers, the City Council scuttled the hard-won agreement, and the city's residents got a glimpse of the forces that feed skid row's despair.
Critics of the agreement raised the specter of "tent cities" from Brentwood to the banks of the Los Angeles River. But let's be honest. The focus of the law was always skid row, the city's central shame, home to 10,000 people caught in a desperate daily lottery for too few beds and too little hope.
Until 2003, when the ACLU sued on behalf of six homeless individuals who were arrested for not having a place to sleep, the police rousted and harassed the homeless on skid row at all hours under a city ordinance that prohibits "sitting, lying or sleeping on streets, sidewalks or public ways." Of the 50 most populous U.S. cities, L.A. ranks among the very meanest. None of the others has such an ordinance in effect 24 hours a day, seven days a week on all streets without exception. New York, Chicago, Washington, Detroit and San Francisco do not have such a law. Houston, Seattle and Denver make an exception for nighttime.
In April, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, when too few shelter beds are available, such a code unconstitutionally criminalizes people who are on the street, threatening them with jail and fines that far exceed the worth of their worldly possessions.
"The state may not make it an offense to be idle, indigent or homeless in public places," the court wrote in deciding the lawsuit the ACLU won against the city. "Nor may the state criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless - namely sitting, lying or sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles' skid row."
To draft a new ordinance that would meet with the court's approval, we worked for months with the city and the police to reach agreement.
Of course, such an agreement would only be the beginning. More affordable housing, addiction counseling, mental health services and job programs are keys to getting the chronically homeless and those temporarily down on their luck off the streets.
City officials talk about the severe gap between the number of homeless people and the number of beds available to them. They talk about the fact that homelessness results from mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, low-paying jobs and a lack of affordable housing. They know that there are 88,000 homeless in L.A. County, far more than any other metropolitan area. Many of them are women, children, domestic violence victims and veterans.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton are on record as saying that L.A.'s ordinance will neither solve homelessness nor eradicate rampant crime on skid row. They have been ready to move ahead with a plan to bring more police downtown. Now police are unsure what to do.
Skid row's serious criminal element and its open drug dealing must be eliminated. Part of the way to do this is to give police the tools and resources necessary to provide stability to the area.
But we must also 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.
Our city is wealthier than ever, and all around skid row weathered buildings are getting fresh-scrubbed. But 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. Instead, it's become a window onto our fractured civic culture.
Villaraigosa, Bratton, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and the ACLU make up an unlikely coalition. Together we proposed a first step to solving L.A.'s homeless crisis and not criminalizing the homeless. The other side has let thoughtful negotiations unravel in favor of halting progress on skid row.