L.A. council OKs law limiting homeless people's belongings to what can fit in a trash bin

The Los Angeles City Council approved a law Wednesday to rein in the tent-and-tarpaulin encampments whose dramatic spread has raised the political stakes of handling one of the nation's worst homeless crises. 

The ordinance -- a revised version of the law known as 56.11 that was adopted in June -- limits storage on sidewalks, parkways and alleys citywide to what homeless people can fit in a 60-gallon container, about the size of a city recycling or trash bin.

The measure passed on a 13-1 vote, with Councilman Gil Cedillo opposing.

The council backed off even stricter rules that would have limited homeless people to what they could carry in a backpack, if the city provided storage for other belongings. But the law allows the city to clamp down in this way in the future.

City Councilman Joe Buscaino said the measure balanced the city's need for safe and clean streets with homeless people's personal property rights.

"We recognize this is just one step forward to address the homelessness crisis," said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles. "But right now you have the ability to adopt an ordinance that promotes healthy and safe streets."

Skid row activists called the measure draconian and demeaning and warned that it could run up against federal opposition to criminalizing homeless people's status.

Under the law, homeless people can be cited or arrested on a misdemeanor charge for failing to clear the sidewalks or failing to take down their tents between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"How can I get out of homelessness when you keep throwing me literally in the trash?" said General Jeff Page.

Members of Los Angeles Community Action Network, a skid row advocacy group, paraded through the City Council chambers wrapped in garbage bags spray-painted "I am human. Not trash."

The city has been grappling for the better part of a year with how to respond to shantytowns that leapfrogged their traditional downtown boundaries as the city's homeless population rose 20% in two years, to 26,000 people.

After adopting the original storage bill in June, the council suspended enforcement while modifications were debated.

Under the new measure, the city can impound homeless people's "excess personal property" after providing 24 hours' notice. The measure defines that as "personal property that cumulatively exceeds the amount of property that could fit in a 60-gallon container with the lid closed."

The city will store these items for 90 days, during which time the owners can claim them. But they cannot evade further confiscation by moving the items to another public area, the ordinance says.

With no advance warning, the city can seize and impound a tent that has not been taken down during the day.

"They will be allowed to erect tents in the nighttime hours," Buscaino said.

Bulky and contaminated items can be seized and discarded without warning. Wheelchairs, crutches and walkers are exempt, and homeless people can keep their tents up in daytime hours if the temperature falls below 50 degrees.

Westside Councilman Mike Bonin said he was "not happy" with the measure but saw it as an improvement over the original law, which he said dictated that "you can't have any belongings."

"A no vote today keeps in place a crueler law," Bonin said. "I remain a reluctant yes."

"It's better than what we have now," Councilman Curren Price agreed.

Cedillo, however, said the city cannot help homeless people and criminalize them at the same time. Earlier this year, the council approved in principle a $2-billion housing and service plan to end homelessness in 10 years.

"We cannot go on two paths," Cedillo said. "One path has to be toward building more housing, more shelters, more storage. The other takes us to more criminalization, an ongoing effort that has failed us."

"Not one storage facility has opened, not one housing unit," said Becky Dennison, director of Venice Community Housing. "Do that first and stop criminalizing."

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington, D.C., called the measure "outrageous" and said it would be cheaper to provide homeless people with housing.

"This new law not only removes existing resources but also criminally punishes people simply for trying to survive -- potentially burdening them with arrest records that make it even harder to find housing or employment," Foscarinis said in an email.

Twitter: @geholland

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