Lawyers Team Up to Fight for the Homeless

A typical lawyer's brief is often unintelligible--a morass of technical jargon and prolix sentences. A brief filed July 28 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, though, was not like most others.

In clear and simple language it tells about the life of the homeless in Los Angeles and, allegedly, in Skid Row hotels from which the county purchases emergency housing. The tale--often told in the words of homeless men and women--is as relentless as it is horrifying.

A Man's Lament

"Every window was broke in my room," one man says in the brief, filed in the case of Paris vs. Board of Supervisors. "At night my room was real airish, a lot of wind was blowing in, making it difficult to sleep. It's very difficult to sleep when it's cold. . . . If a man can't lie down in peace and be warm, why lay down? A man can do the same thing in the street."

The brief goes on to say the homeless are sometimes sent to hotels that smell unbearably; where bathrooms and showers are filthy; where rooms are filled with trash or infested with vermin; where sheets and mattresses are torn and dirty and the water does not work; where windows are broken, there are no screens or locks, and electrical wires are exposed; and where some people feel so threatened they return to the streets.

Paris vs. Board of Supervisors is part of a three-year effort by local attorneys to assure that the homeless population in Los Angeles County, estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, receive adequate shelter. Known loosely as the Homeless Litigation Team, the attorneys have filed six lawsuits against Los Angeles County and one against the state Department of Social Services since December, 1983. Participating in the effort are a number of public interest law firms, including the Inner City Law Center, San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

The Paris brief, however, was researched and written primarily by a new member of the Homeless Litigation Team, the Century City law firm of Irell & Manella. Since July, 1985, the 131-attorney business and commercial firm has worked with a zeal usually reserved for high-priced litigation: 30 Irell & Manella attorneys and dozens of secretaries and paralegals have worked on the Paris case, which the firm is handling pro bono (for free). The Irell team has catalogued more than 14,000 pieces of evidence, 75% of it in a computer data base.

Enforcing the Codes

What lawyers say they want in the Paris case is for their clients to receive clean, safe accommodations in welfare hotels and for governments to enforce strictly the myriad health, housing and fire codes. That, attorneys say, would help indigents recover from the shock of living on the street, and get on with their lives.

This move to the courts reflects a nationwide trend of attorneys suing on behalf of the homeless: Not since the 1970s, when civil rights lawyers challenged desegregation plans across the United States, have they played such a prominent role in shaping social policy.

In Los Angeles, homeless litigation was conceived after tenant lawyers noticed a dramatic change in what happened to their clients after being evicted. "In the '70s," said Gary Blasi, an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and a leading advocate of the homeless, "if you represented somebody in an eviction and they lost, they moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom apartment, or from Los Feliz to Echo Park. Increasingly, people began moving from crummy apartments to nothing, to living in cars. You can only listen to those stories so many times without being affected."

The 170 declarations of the homeless filed in Paris vs. Board of Supervisors are the cornerstone of what Blasi, 40, calls "bringing the ugly reality of the streets and alleys into the courtroom"; "life on the streets is completely incomprehensible to most judges," he has written.

The Personal Side

The work takes a personal toll. "This is not a job you leave at five and forget about," said Blasi, the father of two sons, ages 7 and 11. "It has affected my kids--they know what I do, and what's going on. That's also one of the reasons I do it. I do not want them to grow up in a country that thinks it's OK to let people die on the streets."

The first local suit successfully challenged a rule that required an applicant to supply identification before receiving emergency housing. Others suits have challenged the size of the county's general relief (welfare) stipend (now $247, up from $228 when challenged), its system of penalizing welfare recipients, and its treatment of the mentally disabled. Another case challenged the policy of issuing the homeless $8 checks for housing, an insufficient amount, attorneys maintained. A Skid Row hotel typically rents for $240 a month.

Not everyone is pleased with the move of the homeless into courts. One source in county government, who is familiar with local homeless litigation and asked not to be identified, criticized lawyers filing the Paris motion and challenged the accuracy of some evidence. All welfare hotels, she claimed, are inspected twice a month, and "(county inspectors) don't find the kinds of conditions people describe."

Although she expressed a "healthy respect" for lawyers representing the homeless, she said: "I question their insistence on using the legal process. The county has not been resistant to investigating these issues and problems. Homelessness is a problem that faces all of society. We are attempting to accommodate a growing roster of welfare recipients in a difficult economic climate."

This year the county's general relief program will provide $110 million in cash and other assistance to some 40,000 local residents.

She said the county is willing to institute changes in the shelter system recommended by lawyers.

'Important Statement'

Public interest lawyers sought the assistance of Irell & Manella because they could not handle a case as large and complex as Paris. "We also felt it was significant that one of the most prestigious law firms in Los Angeles was concerned," added Mark Rosenbaum, 38, an attorney with the ACLU. "That was an important statement to make on behalf of the homeless."

At about the same time, several attorneys at Irell were discussing the possibility of working together on a large pro bono case. One partner, Jon Davidson, had handled a number of small pro bono cases, which left him frustrated. "I had developed skills as a litigator that those cases took no advantage of," he said. "And frequently the real problem was not the particular lawsuit, but a more systemic one. Several people had ideas simultaneously, and began talking: 'Maybe we could pool our efforts, and take on something larger.' "

What interested him in this issue, Davidson remembers, was the story of a homeless man told by the ACLU's Rosenbaum:

"There was no way he was going to be able to get a job, because he hadn't had a shower in a week, he hadn't slept. (I) saw this cycle, how easily ordinary people could become those you see on the street. A lot of people think, 'Who are these bums?' but it doesn't take long for someone on the streets to look that way."

Unlike their predecessors fighting segregation, lawyers for the homeless cannot rely on the federal constitution. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it contains no "guarantee of access to dwellings of a particular quality."

In Los Angeles, attorneys have relied heavily on the state Welfare and Institutions Code, which requires counties to "relieve and support" the poor. At the same time, they have argued that the California constitution guarantees a fundamental right to the preservation of life and health.

'Right to Survive'

"We contend that people, by virtue of being human beings, have the right to survive," Blasi explained. "People have certain express constitutional rights, (such as) the right to privacy. How much privacy do you have if you're sleeping in a park? And you have a right not to be deprived of your property without due process of law. What does that mean if you have to sleep on your shoes to keep them from being stolen? It seems a matter of common sense, that if none of these rights are possible without a certain basic level of human existence, then there must also be a right to that existence."

No judge in California has yet evaluated that claim.

But, as Irell associate Sharon Oxborough, 27, a graduate of Harvard Law School, points out, it is not enough to prove a constitutional right exists. "Even if you have a right to housing, in the same way you have a right to non-discriminatory education, the problem is: How are you going to effectuate that right."

Thus, in New York City, where as many as 1,000 men sleep side by side in cots at one shelter, lawyers for the homeless have returned frequently to court after an initial ruling that the homeless have a right to shelter. There are now three public interest law firms representing the homeless in New York City, and a number of private law firms have helped file more than a dozen class-action suits against the city and state.

"The homeless are basically excluded from the political process," said Douglas Lasdon, director of the Legal Action Center for the Homeless in New York City. "They have no political representation."

Successes in Court

Attorneys for the homeless have gone to court--successfully--in West Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut. They have won everything from a broad right to shelter (in West Virginia) to voting rights (in Pennsylvania).

The work of lawyers on behalf of the homeless seems destined to grow: Last month the American Bar Assn. released a committee report urging attorneys to assist the homeless, and organizations such as the National Housing Law Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Lawyers Guild have all held seminars on homelessness.

Like many attorneys working on Paris, Irell & Manella associate Catherine Helm visited welfare offices to interview people who had stayed in Skid Row hotels supplied by the county. The Harvard Law School graduate, who is 27 and lives in Hancock Park, said those visits challenged her preconceptions: She could not view the homeless as drunks and derelicts.

"I talked to one man who had come to Los Angeles to find a job, and found one in a computer company, in inventory control," she said. "He had lost it in January, and had struggled to stay off welfare. Finally, in March, he had to go stay in a voucher hotel, and he went on general relief. When I spoke to him, he had spent the previous night on the street because his general relief had run out a week before."

Faces of the Homeless

Irell & Manella associate Bryan Ford, 28, saw in the homeless the faces of people he has known. "If you actually talk to people, many times you will know others like them, whose circumstances aren't so bad," said the Mar Vista resident, a graduate of Stanford Law School. "You will talk to people who have mental problems, who are retarded, on the streets. I know that because my brother is retarded. You will see people you may have known in high school, who are working in small manufacturing factories; this person's factory closed. He just falls down. It doesn't stop until he's standing on the streets."

Housing for the homeless, Davidson said, "is never going to be great. The (rooms) are small. There's nothing comfortable. We're not saying there should be color TVs, or even TVs, or radios. We just want to make them healthy and safe. We're saying there should not be broken glass, and there should not be sewage on the floor or rats running through your room and sitting on your bed."

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