For Los Angeles' Homeless, Fears Persist of a 'Cruel and Pistol-Happy' Police Force - Pacific Standard
Despite a federal court ruling that reinforces the rights of the homeless, Skid Row residents live in fear of losing what little they have.

It's true that Skid Row has a serious drug problem, William tells me, peering out of the two-man tent he shares with his wife. He calls his block, a dense thicket of tarps and tents, "the middle of cocaine alley." It's also his only housing option.

Shirley squints into the late-afternoon sun as her husband talks, her ponytail occasionally nodding along in agreement with his droopy white beard. "Where are they gonna put us?" William continues, grabbing the arm of Shirley's camping chair for emphasis. "They're not gonna give us a job. They're not gonna give us a place to stay." The couple has been married for a decade, but, for the last two years, they've lived on the streets of Skid Row, a few square miles of downtown Los Angeles—a stone's throw from City Hall and the Staples Center—where thousands of homeless people live on the streets.

William says that police use Skid Row's drug problems as a cudgel—even against people like himself, who are not involved with such substances—with no attempt to help the addicted or discern the non-users on the street. "Thank God I'm not addicted to drugs. Money 'round here just isn't enough. But the police don't care. They stereotype all the homeless as being drug addicts," William sighs. "They know that there's drugs out here, so they're gonna use it as a crutch so they can control the population." (A Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson writes in a statement that "'respect for all people' is a core value of the Los Angeles Police Department and our officers are held accountable for any inappropriate behavior or violations of Department policies.")

Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared it unconstitutional to prosecute homeless people for sleeping on public property if they have nowhere else to go. The federal court, which covers the nine westernmost states, ruled against the City of Boise for ticketing and arresting unsheltered homeless people.

The court called Boise's law a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Boise's shelters were sometimes unavailable to portions of the city's homeless population due to a bed shortages, limitations on the number of days a person can stay in a shelter, and religious requirements in some shelters.

"Just as the state may not criminalize the state of being 'homeless in public places,' the state may not 'criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless—namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets,'" Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in the ruling.

In Los Angeles, where 75 percent of the city's 58,000 homeless people live unsheltered, the ruling has enormous consequences. However, municipal ordinance 41.18(d), which states that "No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way," is still in effect.

Despite the 9th Circuit's full-throated strike on the criminalization of homelessness, William and Shirley say that they live in constant fear of their tent and other few possessions being taken by the police. William already had one tent removed, supposedly for being too large, which he never got back. "It's not fair to the people that buy this stuff. They say: 'Prove it's yours. You don't have a receipt.' Of course they don't have a receipt!" William says. This time, though, he's prepared: "I've got a receipt for what I've got. Can't take nothing from me. If they do, I'm gonna get it back in a court of law."

The LAPD disputes the occurrence of this practice. "Los Angeles Police officers do not take property unless an individual is being taken into custody," a spokesperson says. "The Department of Sanitation handles the removal of property, examines it based on health and safety standards, and then holds anything that is not deemed hazardous for 90 days."

William says that, in the last few months, he has seen enforcement ramp up, especially with regard to seizures of tables, chairs, and large tents. He attributes the change to the city's plans to host the 2028 Olympics, which were recently made official. "They're talking about coming through before the end of the year, to clean up this place, displace everybody, make 'em move," he says. "They don't want the Olympics staff coming through and seeing the seedy underbelly of Skid Row." He says he's witnessed officers explicitly citing the Olympics while removing property and arresting area residents who sell small amounts of food and cigarettes to scrape by. Asked about this, an LAPD spokesperson says, “There is no directive, order, or expectation that an event some 10 years away will dictate an enforcement posture today.”

In 2007, the city agreed not to enforce the 41.18(d) between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until the city built 1,250 supportive housing units, as part of a settlement agreement in Jones v. City of Los Angeles. The settlement vacated a 2006 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling very similar to this month's Boise decision, but the ruling was thrown out when the settlement was reached. The Boise ruling expands the Jones settlement agreement; according to University of California–Los Angeles law professor Gary Blasi, even if the 1,250 units are built in L.A., as long as there are more homeless people than available shelter spaces, it's unconstitutional to enforce 41.18(d). Blasi says the city is at least 23,000 shelter beds short. Greg Spiegel of the Inner City Law Center says the county would need to build 568,000 affordable units to end the homelessness crisis. (Spiegel was also director of homelessness policy for Mayor Eric Garcetti from 2014 to 2016.)

In June, Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times that the city had fulfilled the Jones agreement's housing requirements, and could resume enforcing the ordinance. According to the Times, the mayor said arresting people sleeping on the streets was "a tool that we have before us, that we can and will use." Hearing this, the plaintiffs' attorney from the Jones case, Carol Sobel, challenged the city on the number of units they claimed to have built, arguing many units were being double-counted. (Garcetti's office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Garcetti and his staff have since distanced themselves on these claims, subsequently telling the Times that city policy is already in line with both the Boise decision and Jones, and that they do not arrest homeless people for sleeping on the streets at night. "We work closely with the city attorney's office to ensure our officers practice constitutional policing and adhere to the latest court rulings," the LAPD spokesperson says. "Los Angeles is not 'at odds' with the Boise ruling as we do not enforce 41.18(d) between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m."

William has a cell phone and is aware of the Boise ruling. But he says that he's lost faith in the ability of litigation to make any difference for him and the other people living on the streets. "I'm too old for this. I'm 59, she's 61," he says, gesturing at Shirley. "That's way too old to be out here. To get housing, you gotta fill out an application. It could take years to get. I could die."

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Garcetti's initial announcement about using camp-clearing enforcement as a tool came as his administration prepared to roll out its new "A Bridge Home" initiative, which promises 15 temporary shelters around the city. The first of these shelters opened downtown this month, adding only 45 beds for the city's overwhelmingly large homeless population. According to UCLA's Blasi, "all the evidence points to the fact that 'A Bridge Home' is pretty much a public relations front for enforcement activity."

A police car stops near a homeless encampment on April 19th, 2006, in Los Angeles, California.

A police car stops near a homeless encampment on April 19th, 2006, in Los Angeles, California.

The ICLC's Spiegel calls the Boise ruling very important "because it reinforces the notion that blaming the person who is homeless is unconstitutional. People become homeless because they don't have a better alternative. People aren't choosing to sleep on a tent on the sidewalk in any real sense of choice. So what this helps us do is to get away from non-solutions like arresting people and putting them in jail, or leaf-blowing them into someone else's neighborhood."

Willy, a bespectacled 62-year-old veteran who served in Vietnam and Germany, knows a lot about unhelpful city policies. Willy (not to be confused with William) has struggled with a heroin addiction, which began before he was honorably discharged from the military in the '80s. Still, he too feels he's been stereotyped by cops and social workers who assume he's carrying drugs or will waste any aid money on drugs. "How's that your position to decide?" he asks. "I spent over $12,000, man, on my family. Making sure they could eat. Somewhere to sleep. We started out in hotels and I couldn't afford it. First $7,000 went"—he snaps his fingers—"like that. I had to send my family home. My kids are with my daughter. My wife's the only thing with me. And I nearly lost her in the bullshit." He also describes difficulty getting the services he needs to get back on track, despite his veteran status—difficulties Willy, who is black, attributes to racism.

Willy's legs are covered in scars from being shot and stabbed, the shared dangers of deployment and living on the streets. But what he complains about is the abuse he's taken from the LAPD during the 10 months he's camped on Skid Row. "The police down here are nothing nice. They're very cruel, they're very rude, and they're pistol-happy," he says, a family of flies swarming his T-shirt and the tattered computer chair that he sits on as we speak. "I've had a gun put to the back of my head. Told me to get on the wall, on my knees. For no reason. I ain't even got no dope on me. I ain't even got an apparatus. A pipe or anything. I got no paraphernalia."

Another federal court, in 2016, issued an injunction ordering Los Angeles to stop seizing the property of homeless people on Skid Row without sufficient cause, and to store seized items instead of just destroying or disposing of them. But given that the Boise ruling pertains specifically to sleeping on public property, UCLA's Blasi fears that the city may "read the ruling narrowly, meaning that they will try to bust up the encampments," removing bulky personal items and multi-person tents. "You can lay down on the sidewalk, you can cover yourself with a blanket, but can you put up a tent? Can you put up a tarp? There will be lawyers arguing 'only when there's rain predicted, should people be able to have a tarp or a tent,'" Blasi says. "There will continue to be legal fights about this just because the city is unwilling or unable to do what it would take to move people out of these encampments, which is really what's driving the politics of all this."

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General Dogon, a longtime activist for the Los Angeles Community Action Network who grew up around Skid Row, says none of the court rulings have made a significant change to city policy. "The city never really adheres to one lawsuit. They never want to see that they're at fault. The conditions on the ground don't change." But the ICLC's Spiegel still thinks litigation is a worthwhile pursuit. "Litigation imposes costs on the city, so those things matter, because they're not silver bullets. What litigation does is throw wrenches into things. It doesn't say, what's the real problem here and how can we solve it?"

The language of 41.18(d) remains posted ominously on municipal signs that stare down from buildings around Skid Row. For many in the community living in tents, boxes, and sleeping bags, the signs are a reminder of the arbitrary brutality of the city's treatment of its most vulnerable population—irrespective of the rights supposedly guaranteed by federal courts.

Down the block from Willy, Phil sits on a night-black bicycle in front of the tent he's lived in for over a decade. "Police bother me all the time," he says, speaking very quietly, as if crawling inside his words. Phil describes how the LAPD has seized his property, his prescribed medication, and identification several times, by his account for no discernible reason. "They take all my property. My medicine get thrown away, and, the next day, I try to talk to somebody [at LAPD], and nobody find it."

The most recent incident took place this summer, resulting in days of appointments and paperwork to get back on track. "I had to go to immigration, get my paperwork, give me my California ID. I got it again, but it cost me $10, and I don't have that money!" Phil says, noting how difficult it is for him to get around the city. "How can you be police, and throw away somebody's identification? Just pick it up from my wallet. I say, 'How are you going to do that?' They say: 'Chill. What are you gonna do?' Nothing...."

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