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Respecting the rights of the homeless

Respecting the rights of the homeless
More than 100 people, many of them homeless, lined up at the Midnight Mission on Aug. 26to have their records cleared of fines and warrants at a homeless court and citation clinic organized by the city attorney. (Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles City Council committee took the smart step this week of removing criminal penalties and fines from a controversial new law involving the treatment of homeless people's possessions. While it's true that city officials have a responsibility to keep the streets safe and clean, they must find ways to do so that respect the rights and legitimate needs of the homeless.

Under the ordinance as passed in June, city sanitation workers were given permission to take away homeless people's belongings on the streets and sidewalks after 24 hours' notice; the goal was to find a way to clear some of the more expansive homeless encampments. But in the original version, people who refused to give up their property or have it put in storage could have been arrested or fined. It is not only unfair, but counterproductive, to criminalize behavior that stems mainly from being homeless. This week's amendments, if approved by the full council, remove those penalties.

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The committee also made a distinction this week between attended and unattended property. Unattended property can still be taken, put in a city-run storage facility and left there for 90 days for homeless people to retrieve. But attended personal property may only be taken away if the city has provided storage space nearby and the homeless person has refused to use it or move his or her belongings. If there is no storage space available within two miles, the city may not take the possessions.

Those changes are a step forward. But when an analyst from the City Administrative Office fretted at the meeting of the homelessness and poverty committee that it could be years before the city secured enough storage space to begin enforcing the law, it raised the question: If officials can't find enough storage space in the city for homeless people's possessions, how are they ever going to find enough housing for the people themselves?

There are still questions to be answered about how the ordinance will be enforced. How many belongings should a homeless person be allowed to keep at his or her side? When they stretch the length of half a block, isn't that too many?

Everything related to the possessions of the city's 25,686 homeless people is complicated. Storage space can be costly for the city. Residents who live near storage facilities for homeless people often complain about the influx of people into the neighborhood. But until there is enough housing — and especially housing with supportive services for the homeless — the least the city can do is provide storage space where people can keep their most important personal belongings.

Complicated as they are, these issues involving the unsightliness of tents, shopping carts and other possessions are dwarfed by the larger problem of providing therapeutic services and housing to people living on the streets. The council committee should tackle the broader issues as soon as it can.

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