AS SOON AS this morning, the most vulnerable homeless of Los Angeles -- those who live on the sidewalks of skid row -- could be handed over as sacrificial offerings to Southern California’s worst drug lords. If the City Council approves a secretly negotiated settlement with the ACLU today, the sidewalks of skid row will be turned into private property between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. for anyone -- including drug dealers -- who claims to be homeless.
The council discussion will be held behind closed doors, and the details will be unveiled only after the fact. So unless the City Council musters the political courage to reject this compromise, the people of Los Angeles will lose control of their own streets. a federal judge.
I’ve seen drug dealing and violent crime in my neighborhood near skid row explode since April. That’s when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the ACLU’s widely ridiculed legal argument that enforcing a city ordinance against sleeping on sidewalks is “cruel and unusual punishment” if the person claims to be homeless. The result was the “privatization” of the streets because police agreed not to intrude on anyone in a street tent between a specified period of time each day.
The case, and subsequent mediation that led to what’s being voted on today, rests on the ACLU’s claim that the homeless are forced to sleep on sidewalks because there’s nowhere else for them to go. But, to begin with, there are empty beds every night on skid row, despite the teams of people who go out not just asking but begging people to come into the shelters.
Second, anyone who does not wish to use a shelter can find public and private places to sleep discreetly. I have been homeless (because of a dopamine malfunction that I still battle), so I know this firsthand. I also know, though, that many on skid row are too medically ill, mentally ill or drug addicted to care for themselves or to make the right decisions in their lives. And it is these people who will suffer most by being herded into one small ghetto along with the drug dealers who prey on them.
Because of the now-discredited policy of containment, skid row is the only place where the homeless have access to seven free hot meals a day, free showers, free haircuts, free clothes and free medical care. That concentration has created a market -- and legal cover -- for drug pushers.
Legalizing encampments will only make it harder to get the homeless off the streets, while making their lives more dangerous. During the police-free hours every night, the tents will offer private office space for dealers and pimps, and the police will be powerless to intervene. During the day, these tents will be folded up and leaned against a fence until the clock strikes 9 p.m.
The tragedy is that the city attorney has advised that an appeal of the 9th Circuit decision would be easily winnable, because the constitutional argument is shoddy and because the judge was never shown that there are empty beds on skid row every night. Keeping this bad decision on the books opens up the likelihood that someone will use the same legal reasoning to erect tent cities on the sidewalks of Venice, Hollywood or anywhere else a homeless “advocate” can complain about insufficient shelter beds.
Part of the concern about anti-camping laws comes from fear of indiscriminate sweeps. Yet no one today is arrested just for sleeping on the sidewalk; you have to commit another, far more serious crime. The jail system doesn’t have the capacity to process legitimate criminals, let alone homeless roundups. Worries over potential police abuses and protecting the property rights of the true homeless -- both of which are important -- can and should be addressed by passing specific city laws.
But we cannot afford to sign a settlement that locks the city -- forever -- into a process that will create permanently protected havens for drug dealers. We can’t let the ACLU forcibly privatize public sidewalks for anyone who wishes to live on them.
The side effects of this case have already been devastating to the residents of skid row. It is obscene that the City Council can even think of allowing the sovereignty of our public spaces to be sacrificed behind closed doors, thus endangering the lives of those who are unable to protect themselves. The city’s right to protect all its citizens must be defended in court, and if any settlement is to be done, the City Council must insist that it be done in public, with informed public debate.
To do otherwise is a terrible betrayal of the citizens of Los Angeles.