In Los Angeles, the law against sleeping on the sidewalk (Municipal Code 41.18) has gradually been undone by a series of court rulings. Now, the City Council is trying to update the law in a way that would be in line with those rulings but also give the city some control over where people can sleep.
In 2007, LA was sued by the ACLU in a case called Jones v. Los Angeles. The case concluded with LA agreeing it would only enforce the anti-camping code in certain limited circumstances. But the law took another hit last year when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a law in Boise which prohibited sleeping on the sidewalk. The court concluded that it was cruel and unusual to prevent people from sleeping in public spaces so long as there weren’t any beds available to them. What that means for LA, according to some, is that unless the city can offer a bed to the 36,000+ homeless that reside there, it can’t enforce the anti-sleeping laws. Sice LA only has about 8,000 shelter beds, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. But the LA City Council is trying to update the law and the LA Times reports that a city attorney argues there is a way to update the law and make it enforceable despite the Boise decision:
The proposed rules were unveiled at the council’s homelessness committee meeting Wednesday at City Hall, where Senior Assistant City Atty. Valerie Flores said that prohibiting people from sleeping near schools, parks, newly established shelters and in other specified areas would be legally defensible, even after the federal decision that tossed out rules against sleeping on public property in Boise…
Flores argued that L.A.’s existing laws on sidewalk sleeping “would benefit from modernization, clarification and a better balance between the competing needs of persons using the public right-of-way.”
After meeting with Flores and other city staffers behind closed doors Wednesday, O’Farrell laid out the proposed rules: No sitting, lying down or sleeping within 500 feet of schools, parks or day care centers. No bedding down near homeless housing, shelters or other facilities to serve homeless people that have opened in recent years.
People would also be banned from bunking down on bicycle paths, in tunnels or on bridges designated as school routes, in public areas with signs barring trespassing or setting closing times for safety or maintenance purposes, and in crowded areas near big venues such as Staples Center.
Naturally, homeless advocates are not pleased with the new plan and are pointing out that the rule against sleeping within 500 feet of a park would put much of Skid Row off limits. From LAist:
Peggy Lee Kennedy, an advocate for the homeless from Venice who attended Wednesday’s meeting, called the proposal “inhumane.” She was particularly concerned about the 500-foot rule pertaining to parks, saying it would force homeless people to camp far from public bathrooms.
“If you’re living outside, nobody is going to let you use their bathroom. So you have to go to a park. If you can’t be within 500 feet of a park, that means you have to go 500 feet to pee or poop.”…
Homeless advocate Jed Parriott said the rules could lead to ever greater concentrations of homeless encampments.
“This severely limits where you can camp legally, which is going to effectively create containment zones like Skid Row all over the city,” Parriot said.
I don’t think anyone involved believes changing this law would lead to Skid Row disappearing overnight. But while the city works on dealing with this long-term problem through new housing, temporary beds, and mental health and drug abuse treatment the city also needs to maintain some control over the streets. The new law seems aimed at reinforcing that the city’s sidewalks are not a free-for-all in which the homeless exist outside the law.
The city attorney was asked to draft an ordinance. Once that’s done, it will have to come before the City Council again to be approved. So this is far from a done deal at the moment. But as one recently elected member of the council points out, the homeless aren’t the only people involved here:
John Lee, who was recently elected to represent the northwestern San Fernando Valley in a council race that focused heavily on homelessness, said he was still reviewing the proposed rules but called them “a good step” toward protecting public safety and ensuring sidewalks are accessible.
“As I said during the campaign, we need to be compassionate to homeless people,” Lee said. “But we have to be compassionate to businesses and homeowners too.”
Here’s a local news report on the issue: