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Go Directly to Jail: Punishing the Homeless for Being Homeless

Posted on Sep 10, 2015

By Bill Boyarsky

Bill Boyarsky

This is the second installment in a three-part series that Truthdig columnist Bill Boyarsky has written about homelessness.

Part 1: Why Ending Homelessness Is Political Poison

Part 3: Helping the Homeless in the Face of GOP’s Brutal Funding Cuts

The main Los Angeles County jails are less than two miles from Skid Row—within walking distance for the mentally ill and addicted homeless men who are arrested for petty offenses and then released back to the streets. Returning to Skid Row, they may be nailed by the police again for any number of offenses, such as jaywalking, refusing to move their possessions from the sidewalk, urinating in an alley or sleeping in a public place.

More than a third of Los Angeles’ homeless are mentally ill; a quarter are addicts; and 21 percent are victims of domestic violence. Many suffer from a combination of these and many other afflictions and traumas. (These figures are from a census conducted by volunteers under the direction of county and city officials.)


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This cruel revolving-door process—from streets to jail back to streets—is also a reality in other cities throughout the nation.

“People live in public spaces because they have no alternatives,” John Maceri, who leads Lamp Community—an organization that finds housing for the homeless—told me. “We keep perpetuating the same cycle over and over again. We have to stop punishing people for being poor and helpless.”

He added: “The vast majority ... are just trying to survive. Then to arrest them for that and to punish them seems very cruel.”

As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty pointed out in its report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities”: “There are some activities so fundamental to human existence that it defies common sense that they might be treated as crimes. Falling asleep, standing still, and sitting down, are all necessary actions for any human being’s survival. While these activities are unquestionably legal when performed indoors, more and more communities across the country are treating these life-sustaining behaviors as criminal acts when performed in public places by people with nowhere else to go.”

So bad is the situation that the U.S. Justice Department intervened in a case, arguing in a statement of interest that it is unconstitutional for a city to make it a crime for the homeless to sleep in public places.

Objecting to a Boise, Idaho, anti-camping ordinance, the department said that it “should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment (banning cruel and unusual punishment). … Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e. it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has no place to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

Vanita Gupta, the acting assistant attorney general who heads the civil rights division of the Justice Department, added: “Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.”

“Devastating” is a mild description of some of the county jails, the destination of many homeless and mentally ill inmates whose crimes range from major to petty. Men falling out of the economy and landing in the hands of the police on Skid Row head to Men’s Central Jail, where the Justice Department won a consent decree forcing Los Angeles County to improve horrible conditions. From there, they may be transferred to the nearby Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where many mentally ill reside.

Two years ago, in the company of James Coley and Robert Warfield—two caseworkers for the Integrated Recovery Network—I toured Twin Towers and listened while they talked to inmates. Their job was to select inmates who were stable enough to move into housing found by the recovery network, which is another organization that seeks housing for homeless people in the Los Angeles area.

Prisoners filled the day rooms in the cellblocks, spaces that were supposed to be for recreation and relaxation but were packed with cots instead. The men, with no place to go, were forced into close contact with each other. Los Angeles County jail guards were so brutal that the federal government eventually intervened. The sheriff resigned in the ensuing scandal, which also resulted in the conviction of several deputies and the indictment and resignations of top aides to the sheriff.

On the seventh floor of one of the towers, severely mentally ill men were kept in one-man cells with the doors locked 20 hours a day. They were handcuffed when moved from place to place. Other inmates, more destructive, wore mesh clothing that they could not rip off. Some screamed and banged on their doors while others, drugged, curled up on their cots or in the corners of their cells.

A violation of a Los Angeles law aimed at the homeless can draw a police citation. Repeatedly ignoring a citation is a bigger crime and could land a person in these jails. In general, city laws prohibit building makeshift tents and putting up tarps on streets, sidewalks and parks. One particularly rough provision bans “personal property” such as “luggage, backpacks, clothing, documents and medication and household items.”

Powerful support for such laws come from property owners in the Skid Row area and other places, including Venice Beach, a perennial magnet for young men and women running away from abusive homes and discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people and for youth seeking adventure or careers in the movies.

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