It goes without saying that being homeless means not having a closet or an attic or a basement to store your belongings. Those worn and filthy shopping carts, boxes, and plastic bags that homeless people are dragging around on the streets of Los Angeles are their possessions, the net worth of their lives.
But when those belongings clutter sidewalks, they can be a physical or public health hazard and a breeding ground for vermin. They can be unsightly and annoying to others, and they can be bad for businesses and for economic development.
One of the jobs of the city is to balance the rights of the homeless against Los Angeles' other needs. To that end, the City Council is considering a new ordinance that addresses the “storage of personal property” in public spaces. Under the new measure, which seeks to “maintain public areas in clean, sanitary, and accessible condition,” sanitation workers would be able to tag items on the streets with a written warning stating that the owner has 24 hours to remove them. If the items are still there a day later, sanitation workers can take them — even if the owner is standing there — leaving a written notice identifying what was taken and where it will be stored. The owner will then be given 90 days to claim the belongings before the city disposes of them.
The council should reject this proposal.
Not because there's no problem. Anyone who lives or works downtown has seen the mountains of belongings that have turned some homeless people into mobile hoarders.
But this measure is vague and unfocused and won't really solve anything. It doesn't define what sorts of property need to be removed from the streets, or how many items constitute a nuisance. It sets no limits: It doesn't say, for instance, that only hazardous property or property that is blocking public access may be taken.
Besides, the city already is allowed to seize, without notice, bulky items such as sofas, mattresses, and refrigerators, as well as property that is believed to be dangerous to public health or safety.
Another problem is that the ordinance makes no distinction between attended property and unattended property. Do we really want to see sanitation workers in a tug-of-war with homeless people hanging on to their bags and carts for dear life?
City officials acknowledge that this ordinance will not solve homelessness; it's just one tool for dealing with the effects of it, they say. But seizing the possessions of homeless people — many of whom are mentally ill or addicted — does nothing to help the people who are truly in need. In any case, handing out the equivalent of a coat check ticket is not likely even to declutter the city. Most people will retrieve their belongings and be back on the streets quickly. Or they'll move their tagged items two blocks away or to another neighborhood nearby. The city would do better to install more permanent storage bins for homeless people and to put more outreach workers on the streets.