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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. County should not want in on criminalizing homeless people sleeping on the streets

Homeless people at an encampment on L.A.'s skid row.
Homeless people at an encampment on L.A.'s skid row.
(Los Angeles Times)

It doesn’t take mad math skills to figure out that if your community has more homeless people sleeping on the streets than it has open shelter beds and apartments, then there’s nowhere for them to go. So jailing people for breaking rules against sleeping on the street ends up being cruel and, frankly, ludicrous.

That’s the rationale behind the settlement the city of Los Angeles struck in 2007 that allows homeless people to sleep on L.A.'s sidewalks at night. And that’s the basis for an important 9th Circuit Court decision last year in the case of Martin vs. the city of Boise, which states the obvious: whether sitting, lying, and sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, “they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.” So if there is no place to sleep indoors, the government can’t cite or jail you for sleeping outdoors. That is just a basic moral principle that every jurisdiction should uphold.

But high-powered lawyers for the city of Boise want the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of that decision, and other cities are eagerly lining up to file friend-of-the-court briefs urging the high court to overturn it.

Now, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is planning to vote Tuesday on a motion to join that procession. And the Los Angeles city attorney is also filing a brief asking the court to take up Boise’s appeal.

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There’s no question that one of the biggest challenges facing cities and counties today is how to balance the rights of residents with the rights of homeless people at a time when there are legions of people on sidewalks. It is unquestionably a public health and humanitarian crisis.

In its motion, the county lists the many efforts it has undertaken to help reduce this crisis, including the strategy it adopted to try to reduce homelessness, and the money it’s raising through Measure H to provide services, outreach efforts and housing subsidies. It then argues that the Martin decision could drain the county’s resources “and cause the county to take a step backward.” That’s absurd. On the contrary, repealing Martin could lead the county away from its smart work to target the root causes of homelessness with durable solutions, and back to the old days of pushing homeless people from corner to corner — or to jail.

If the Martin decision is overturned, that could allow local jurisdictions to criminalize sleeping outside whenever and wherever they choose. Even if cities chose not to cite or jail homeless people for sleeping on sidewalks, they could simply shoo homeless people off one block onto another, out of one neighborhood into another, unendingly. In fact, the county has taken the lead in helping local cities locate more shelters and housing and exhorting them to accept their responsibility to serve their homeless population, rather than just pushing them out.

The Martin decision already gives cities a way to restrict camping. It specifically says that even a city without sufficient shelter could enforce reasonable restrictions on sleeping, lying, and sitting outside at particular times and in certain locations. The Martin decision isn’t what is keeping cities from moving homeless people out of encampments. It’s stopping cities from taking unreasonably punitive actions against homeless people. A severe lack of shelter beds and housing is what’s keeping cities from moving them out of encampments.

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City Atty. Mike Feuer says that he’s filing an amicus brief in the hopes that the court will clarify the extent of the city’s authority to regulate when and where people sleep on the street. But it’s a complete unknown if this court would be inclined to do that.

The Board of Supervisors should not be filing an amicus brief. The Martin decision is not what’s stopping the county or the city from doing what it needs to do to help get homeless people off the streets.


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