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Opinion

Editorial: A court decision letting homeless people keep all their belongings helps no one

US-CALIFORNIA-HOMELESSNESS-SKID ROW
Belongings of the homeless population fill a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk in skid row on May 30.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

Because the city of Los Angeles does not have enough shelter beds for its outsize homeless population, homeless people have been allowed for more than a decade to sleep on the sidewalks at night. Thanks to new court settlement, they now have the right to keep a nearly unlimited amount of possessions with them on the sidewalks of skid row.

This is not what progress looks like in the homelessness crisis.

The long-awaited settlement, which resolves the lawsuit four homeless people brought against the city of Los Angeles, forbids sanitation workers and police officers from confiscating homeless people’s belongings in and around the skid row area of downtown. Workers will be allowed to take items that are bulky (such as sofas), pose a health hazard, block entrances and exits or make sidewalks impassable. The Mitchell settlement — so named for plaintiff Carl Mitchell — will be in effect for three years.

Homeless people have little choice but to cart around their worldly possessions, and valuables like medical records, personal documents and mementos shouldn’t be snatched from them. But the sidewalks of skid row, already crowded with thousands of homeless people, are also inundated with their bags, tents, shopping carts and trash. A decision that sets no limits on those belongings isn’t helping anyone — not homeless people crammed together on these streets and not the downtown residents and workers who must thread their way through grimy streets choked with tent encampments.

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Los Angeles is a city that has not been able to house all its homeless residents. Instead it settles with them.

L.A.’s skid row, with the largest unsheltered population in the country, is already a ghetto of homelessness. Downtown business owners fear that the settlement will only encourage the proliferation of massive encampments there, but it’s not clear why courts would not give homeless Angelenos in other parts of the city similar rights to keep their possessions. A city ordinance limits how many belongings a person can have on the streets, but that hasn’t stopped large homeless encampments from popping up around the city.

It’s understandable that the residents of a city that is spending more than a billion dollars to house homeless people have grown weary of and annoyed by the sight of sidewalks filled with camps, not to mention the trash and the rats that are drawn to them. And even some homeless service providers say there is a difference between the number and type of belongings homeless people should have on the street and the unchecked number of belongings they often do have.

But let’s be clear about one thing: These sidewalks of misery and destitution are not the result of homeless people partying like drunken frat boys. They are the result of bad city housing policies that choked housing construction and failed to preserve units for poor and working-class people. They are the result of the incredibly sluggish process of creating the housing needed to move homeless people off the streets. They are the result of the city’s galling inability to provide storage, trash cans and bathrooms for people who live without them.

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That said, there should be a way to put a reasonable limit on homeless people’s belongings on the streets. Supplying more accessible storage facilities would help. Also, the settlement does not stop the city from cleaning the streets in these areas as long as it provides advance notice to homeless campers. Any unattended property found during a cleanup must be stored and made available to its owners. On sidewalks in skid row that have become virtually impassable, police could, even with this settlement in place, order homeless campers to make room.

Los Angeles is a city that has not been able to house all its homeless residents. Instead it settles with them. It’s cruel to prevent people with no home and no access to shelter beds from sleeping on the sidewalk at night, so that has been allowed as the result of the 2007 Jones settlement. It’s wrong to take away people’s valuables simply because they have no other place to put them, so that led to the new Mitchell settlement. So, now we have a downtown teeming with homeless encampments and nowhere near enough housing. Both of those things have to change.

In the meantime, here’s something to remember: As miserable as we find it to walk through sidewalks with tents and shopping carts, it’s more wretched for homeless people to be stuck living on sidewalks with their tents and carts.

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