The homeless and a fight for L.A.’s sidewalks


Now that the homeless are prohibited from camping overnight on Ocean Front Walk in Venice, many have migrated to other spots in the beach town. After numerous complaints about trash, city workers, accompanied by police, raided the new areas last month and confiscated unattended belongings, prompting a lawsuit from a civil rights attorney.

According to the suit, filed on behalf of 11 named homeless people, employees of the Los Angeles Police Department and the

Department of Public Works seized property found on 3rd Avenue in Venice that included birth certificates, food stamp eligibility cards, prescription medication, wallets with cash, and even laptop computers. Bystanders apparently insisted that the items had not been abandoned. Nevertheless, they were carted off to a landfill. After intervention from Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, some people were able to retrieve some of their belongings from the dump.

The city is currently barred by injunction from seizing the property of the homeless in the downtown skid row area, and rightly so. Nor is there any reason why officials should be able to sweep through Venice and collect the belongings of the homeless there. The bags and carts of street dwellers contain the essentials of their lives. People sometimes park their belongings on sidewalks while they go to shower or find a meal. Confiscating them is an unsatisfactory solution to the problem.

No one disputes that city officials have a right to keep the streets clean and clear. Or that police are allowed to confiscate items that pose a danger to public safety or health. The only question is how to balance the city’s interest in cleanliness, safety and order with the constitutional protection against unreasonable seizures.

Devising a workable policy on homelessness is extremely difficult. But simply confiscating the property of people who the courts have said have a right to be on the streets is unacceptable and inhumane. Some alternative is necessary. City officials say they will continue to do these cleanups but will give advance warning. Possibly, the city could provide some kind of safe storage area where people could go to reclaim their belongings, or to temporarily stash them instead of leaving them on a sidewalk. There is already such a facility downtown — a secured warehouse, paid for by the Central City East Assn., that provides bins for people to store clothes and small possessions free of charge.

No single solution will completely satisfy everyone involved in this situation. But residents, police and the homeless need to negotiate a compromise that balances the interests of all.