As the number of homeless people has risen dramatically in Los Angeles, so has the tension between those living in squalor on the sidewalks and the residents who have to walk past their encampments, the smell of urine in the air. City officials struggle to balance the rights of homeless people with the rights of everyone else. The region clearly needs to create more housing, but that has been a maddeningly slow process in a city with 34,000 homeless people.
In the meantime, homeless people are vulnerable to being cited by police for breaking any of a passel of the city’s so-called quality-of-life ordinances, which forbid activities such as sleeping on the sidewalk, urinating in public or possessing a shopping cart. A citation can carry a $300 fine — an unaffordable sum for a destitute homeless person. If it’s not paid or if the person cited fails to appear in court, a bench warrant is automatically issued. That can lead to the homeless person getting arrested and in some cases jailed, then returning to the street, locked into an absurd cycle of debt-driven citations, arrests and homelessness.
If you have no home or place to store your belongings, then you carry around your possessions and rest on the sidewalk during the day. If there are no bathrooms for you to use, then you urinate and defecate wherever you happen to be. If anyone thinks citing and arresting people for doing these things means they won’t do them any longer, they’re crazy.
Officials note that the increase in arrests parallels the growth in the local homeless population. But reflecting the trap set by high fines, more homeless people got arrested in 2016 for failure to appear in court for an unpaid citation than for any other reason.
City Atty. Mike Feuer already runs a series of citation clinics at which lawyers work with homeless people to resolve the tickets on their records that can reduce their eligibility for housing and jobs. That’s great and should continue. But that’s on the back end. We need a better approach on the front end. Police need a more productive way of interacting with homeless people on the streets.
For starters, officers need to have the resources to offer a homeless person an alternative to a citation or arrest on the spot. If they’re not accompanied by an outreach worker to help persuade a homeless person to accept services and temporary housing, they need to have a phone number for one.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck insists that his department’s goal is to get homeless people the services they need, and that officers make arrests as a last resort to stop someone who repeatedly breaks the law. There are already teams of police officers in different parts of the city that go out to encampments along with professional outreach workers. But not every police officer on the street encountering a homeless person has an outreach worker at his or her side. When that help isn’t available, police should be instructed that the preferable way to deal with homeless people is to offer them a choice: Get cited and possibly arrested, or agree to work with a service provider.
Granted, this is not the ideal way to get homeless people linked up with counseling and case management and shelter beds. Even when there is a professional outreach worker at the officer’s side, the homeless person is still agreeing to services at the threat of being cited or arrested by someone with a badge and a gun. In general, homeless people who voluntarily accept help are more successful at working with service providers. Among other things, that means we need more outreach workers on the streets — and more temporary housing that they can offer quickly to homeless people.
But here is what we know does not work: charging people money they don’t have; telling people not to go to the bathroom on the sidewalk without offering them public toilets; putting people in jail for being homeless. Let’s stop telling ourselves that arresting homeless people in encampments is actually cleaning up the streets. It’s not.