Sleeping on Sidewalks Gets Rough When the City Can Steal Your Blanket

<i> Michael Dear is the author, with J. R. Wolch, of "Landscapes of Despair: From Deinstitutionalization to Homelessness" (Princeton University Press, 1987)</i>

For the past several years two prominent features of the Los Angeles cityscape have been police raids to clear homeless encampments and caravans of homeless people wandering across the city. These two are obviously related: Forcible evacuations by the police oblige the homeless to migrate in search of hospitable settings.

Last Friday’s raids, across from City Hall, marked a new low in the harassment of the homeless. Property belonging to almost 50 homeless people was seized under police authorization and dumped in a landfill by the city Bureau of Sanitation. No public warnings or official notifications were issued. The few homeless who were present at the time of the raids managed to grab a few possessions. Those who were absent lost everything: blankets, identification, medicine, clothing and small appliances. This particular group of homeless people had been moved earlier in the week from an encampment on the grounds of the former state building on 1st Street. They did receive appropriate notification of that police action.

Why is the private property of the homeless being treated in this way? The city treated as trash what was, for many of them, the sum of their material wealth. No other group in our city would be treated this way.

What would happen if the police impounded your illegally parked car? You would shrug, pay the fines and eventually retrieve your car from the pound. But how would you feel if they didn’t bother to hold your car until you could reclaim it? If, instead, they ordered the car be reduced to scrap metal? You’d be outraged, right? Now imagine your feelings if the deliberately wrecked car contained all your worldly goods. You would be devastated. Well, this is, in effect, exactly what happened in the police-authorized raids that took place on 1st Street.


The city of Los Angeles has a policy that ostensibly deals with this type of situation. The police are supposed to notify the City Council and the mayor in advance of major sweeps and allow the homeless up to 24 hours to remove their belongings.

A number of questions require urgent answers in the light of current police behavior. First, on whose authority are the raids appearing? The only expression of support for the raids has so far come from the Central City East Assn., an organization of business people anxious to expunge the homeless from the streets. The assistant director of the Sanitation Bureau has said: “We were just following orders.” A police spokesperson asserted that police “are just doing their job.” If these statements are true, then the “orders” must be changed, and the “job” of the police must be altered.

What possible justification can there be for treating the homeless in this way? Many people are homeless because of circumstances beyond their control and because of society’s continuing indifference to their plight. They have nowhere to go in this city except the streets. As long as we refuse to shelter them, we cannot blame them for crowding our sidewalks, parks and doorways. It is ethically untenable and morally repugnant to now assault them and their property because they offend someone’s sensibilities.

Where will all this end? We are already shifting people around the city, presumably in the hope that someone will take care of them or that they will tire of the harassment and leave the region altogether. In the cities of medieval Europe the insane and other unwanted people were cast out beyond the city walls. They were often loaded onto barges (the so-called “ship of fools”), dispatched onto the rivers of Europe and let off in remote regions to fend for themselves. Today in New York City the homeless mentally ill can be forcibly removed from the streets and committed to a psychiatric institution. How long will it be before we decide that the “trash” and the people who own it are just too much to bear? The trash can be dumped into landfills; the people can be dumped into institutions, or anywhere else, so long as they are out of sight. Out of mind. Not in my back yard.

The private property of homeless persons is not trash. Just because people are homeless, they do not surrender their civil rights. The police raids on the homeless must stop.