Being homeless often means camping on a sidewalk or living in a car and suffering the indignity of having to use the street as a bathroom. It also means a good chance of being cited by a police officer for one or more of the above at some point.
Much of what homeless people are compelled to do in their everyday lives by virtue of not having a home violates quality-of-life ordinances in the city of Los Angeles. For example, it’s against the law to urinate or defecate in public, but what choice do you have if you’re nowhere near one of the rare public toilets in the city? It’s against the law to sit or sleep on public sidewalks during the daytime, but what choice do you have if you’re exhausted and need to rest?
Yet police officers still cite homeless people for this sort of behavior, exposing them to fines of up to $300. That starts a vicious cycle for those with no ability to pay: When they fail to pay or appear in court, the judge issues a bench warrant for their arrest. The next time they’re stopped by a police officer, they could get arrested and jailed — for about a minute, given that the jails are too crowded — but then they go back to living on the streets, where eventually they get cited again. Their lives get caught in an absurd cycle of citation, bench warrant, arrest, jail, more citations, more bench warrants and so on.
It’s against the law to sit or sleep on public sidewalks during the daytime, but what choice do you have if you’re exhausted and need to rest?
Ultimately, the warrants and fines can hurt a homeless person’s ability to get permanent housing, benefits, social services and employment.
The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office runs citation clinics to help homeless people clear their records of citations for minor, nonviolent infractions of the law. That’s terrific. But people need to get their warrants recalled by the Superior Court as well.
L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore recently proposed recalling five- to 10-year-old bench warrants, a smart move that would remove an obstacle to homeless people getting into housing and services while eliminating a headache for the court system. Moore can’t do this unilaterally, but after he proposed the idea, City Attorney Mike Feuer started working with representatives of the police and the courts to figure out what the parameters of such a program might be. That includes deciding the sorts of infractions involved and how old the bench warrants would have to be to qualify.
As a model, the group should look at the San Francisco Superior Court system. Three years ago, judges there stopped issuing arrest and bench warrants altogether on infractions (which were never punishable by jail time, anyway) and recalled tens of thousands of outstanding warrants. The warrants were mainly for failure to pay or show up in court on violations of the same types of quality-of-life ordinances in effect in L.A.
The court suspended the fines but still found every person guilty of the underlying infractions, which remained on their records. In other words, people were still held accountable for their violations of the law. But the courts no longer exacerbated the problems that stemmed from their lack of housing.
The Los Angeles courts should recall these warrants as swiftly and sweepingly as San Francisco did — and stop issuing them on minor offenses.
Unfortunately, a wide-scale court recall of warrants doesn’t offer judges the opportunity to require a homeless person to obtain counseling and other services in exchange for the relief. This isn’t a process like the city attorney’s citation clinic, where homeless people deal directly with a city prosecutor to clear their citations in exchange for agreeing to work with a service provider.
But that shouldn’t discourage city officials from supporting a plan to clear the overhang of years-old warrants. There are outreach workers on the street every day trying to get homeless people into services. That process continues on various fronts.
Ultimately, the solution to all these legal issues is to get homeless people out of situations that leave them prone to violating these ordinances in the first place. It’s almost impossible to prevent people from resting on a sidewalk during the day with a shopping cart full of belongings if we don’t provide them with a place to live and store their possessions. Housing and shelter must be our main priority.