Editorial: You don’t have to banish homeless encampments on sidewalks to clean up the city

A homeless encampment in Los Angeles
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council rightly turned back a proposal this week to put numerous, confusing restrictions on where homeless people could sit or sleep in the city. The proposal, initiated by Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, the chairman of the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee, sought to revise the city’s loitering ordinance, which bars people from sleeping or sitting on streets or sidewalks anywhere in Los Angeles. That ordinance runs afoul of a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that says you can’t criminalize homeless people for sleeping on public property when there’s no available shelter.

O’Farrell’s proposal might have run afoul of that decision as well, however, because it would have made it extremely difficult for homeless people in the city to find any legal place to bed down for the night. And that’s the reality of Los Angeles: If there are roughly 9,700 shelter beds and 27,000 unsheltered homeless people, most are going to be stuck sleeping outside. The city is also under a long-standing court order to let homeless people sleep overnight on sidewalks until a certain amount of housing is provided.

The proposal was sent back to the committee — where it should die.

We know that people are frustrated and angry at encampments that take over sidewalks and cover them with trash. And City Council members are under tremendous pressure to deal with it. So how about using some of the tools they have that are legal but not cruel?


Why not enforce the rule that says sidewalks must be passable? Homeless people can be required to clear pathways on the sidewalks. And if they don’t, then they can be told to move off that sidewalk. More storage facilities for their possessions would also help. Meanwhile, as we’ve said before, encampments need trash cans and garbage collection the same way people living in houses and apartments do. Homeless people also need mobile bathrooms and showers. Otherwise, they have no choice but to use the streets.

This is not about normalizing homeless encampments. This is about treating people humanely during a crisis that can be solved only with more housing and shelter. “We cannot legislate homelessness way,” Councilman Mike Bonin told his colleagues during the council meeting. Instead, he said, the city should be spending time (and money) creating innovative ways to get more housing and shelter up faster.

If people can’t stand the sight of homeless squalor, the solution isn’t banishing encampments from sight. It’s enabling homeless people to escape that squalor, which ultimately means getting them into housing.