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Bill Boyarsky

Go Directly to Jail: Punishing the Homeless for Being Homeless

Bill Boyarsky
Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

Bill Boyarsky

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

READ:
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.)

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.Only one member of the 15-person City Council, Gil Cedillo, a Democrat, voted against the punitive ordinances. “There are enough laws on the books to deal with this,” Cedillo said. “They chose not to. They want to make it more draconian.”

I visited Mark Ryavec, a property owner in Venice who heads the Venice Stakeholders Association. He had forcefully stated his position on the group’s website: “The cry from homeless advocates to not ‘criminalize the poor’ is fatuous. Societies have rules to protect themselves from noxious behavior. Certain situations — urban encampments of homeless near residents, public defecation, urination and inebriation, frequent late night noise, drug use and sales — all set the stage for worse: theft, trespass, assaults, and home invasions.”

We talked at an outdoor restaurant, and then we toured Venice’s encampments. I had seen them many times before. Ryavec introduced me to Timothy Pardue, who manages a drop-in center for The Teen Project, which provides services to Venice’s youths. He knew Brendon Glenn, the unarmed young homeless man who was shot to death by police in May after a scuffle with a bouncer at a beach club. Pardue raises money, some of it from Ryavec, for bus fares for those who want to return home. He also steers them into rehab and living quarters in group homes.

The laws, which are not strict enough for Ryavec, were written in the office of the progressive city attorney, Mike Feuer, in cooperation with the liberal City Council.

I asked Feuer about this. I have known him for many years, going back to the 1980s when he as a young lawyer headed Bet Tzedek, a Jewish community organization offering legal services to low-income Los Angeles residents. In that role, he sparked a major campaign to prevent landlords from evicting elderly tenants so that they could charge higher rents or convert the apartments to more profitable condos, and he excelled in the demanding job.

“I want to find out how you, who spent formative legal years helping the poor, now feel about enforcing basically one of the tougher laws in the country,” I said to him. “It makes me really mad.”

This is how he answered: “In a city with all this wealth, we allow this to happen. I agree with you. But I’ll say something else. I’ve done dozens and dozens of town hall meetings. Let me tell you another aspect of this issue.”

Feuer then related the story of a mother in Pico-Union, a poor, congested section of the city. As she held the hand of her young daughter, the woman asked him: “Can you please do something? I cannot walk my daughter around the corner to the store safely. There is a homeless encampment right there, and people say bad things. They scare my family.”

He then said: “This weekend I got a call from someone setting up an encampment in the parkway in front of her house. There was an encampment set up on a diamond before a little league game. What do we do? Obviously to think of this as an issue of enforcement is a major mistake. There are also moments when there needs to be some enforcement of basic rules. And it is not an issue of rich versus poor, as my Pico-Union example indicates. This is an issue of trying to maintain a quality of life for everyone in the city.”

He makes a compelling point, but he overlooks the nature of the homeless population. Some are dangerous. A few are wandering young men and women. But a substantial number are people who have fallen off the unforgiving economic ladder. They are not dangerous. As Maceri of Lamp Community told me, they are just trying to survive.

They are victims of an economy that ruthlessly squeezes poor people and of a government that refuses to help them. Threatening such victims with time in the county jail is an act of extreme cruelty.

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