By Mark Ryavec
Back in the mid-80s, when I was serving as the chief deputy to the Los Angeles County Assessor, my boss Alex Pope came to me with a “Homeless Bill of Rights.” An ACLU attorney had given it to him over lunch and asked him to get the Los Angeles county supervisors to adopt it.
The attorney told Alex that it would help attorneys for the homeless advance their lawsuits, including those against the city and county. If my memory serves me, the document was similar to Senate Bill 608, the “Right to Rest” bill, which recently stalled in Sacramento, but also with a provision protecting the personal possessions of the homeless. This latter right was later the subject of the Superior Court’s Lavan decision, which required the city to give notice of removal of personal items from sidewalks and to store them for 90 days.
Fast forward 30 years and we can see that the cumulative effect of recent court decisions, including Lavan, has had the same effect as that long ago ACLU proposal: the voiding of vagrancy laws that have for many years protected residents from the negative effects of transient campers. In addition to the usual hot spots for transient encampments, we now see them throughout the city. I would suggest that this was the real goal of the homeless advocates. It’s a form of extortion, though residents in some areas of the city bear this burden far more than others.
The result of the Lavan Decision (hands off homeless possessions), Jones settlement (sleep anywhere you want), and the Desertrain Decision (sleep in your vehicle anywhere you want), is three fold. First, vagrancy laws are gutted and transients can live outside anywhere they want. Second, there is no pressure at all to leave the street. Third, it is much more attractive to live on the street in Los Angeles, with its moderate weather (and lack of regulations), than in Detroit or Chicago and other points east and north, with their extremes of heat, cold, and rain.
So, it should not come as a surprise that the homeless population here has increased, that more and more of the population is not from L.A., and that they have spread all over the city. For example, the Pacific Palisades has gone from almost no homeless to having them camping on their beaches, bluffs, and parkways. And predictably the response of some people is to start raising funds to counsel and house those newly on their doorstep. That’s exactly the result the homeless advocates want: to put the homeless in everyone’s face so that the “housed” public acts to succor them and pressure their elected officials to house them. It’s a brilliant strategy but callous in the extreme.
It attracts homeless individuals, which includes the drug addicted, mentally ill, and criminally-inclined, to our city in large numbers, in some instances from homes they were living in before coming to L.A. We know this in Venice from the large number of campers for whom our organization has provided bus fares to return home to welcoming family members in distant states.
The loss of vagrancy laws also puts a huge burden on residents and businesses in the popular venues – think Hollywood and Venice, for example. It exposes some to assault; remember the transient that bit off part of the finger of restaurateur Clabe Hartley, and others to home invasion; we had five within six blocks of my home last year.
And it results in the tragic death of those who in their drug or mental derangement tangle with the police; already two dead in Venice this year, who were not from L.A.
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.
Due to the misguided efforts of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilmen Mike Bonin and Gil Cedillo, the potential of two new ordinances to restore some balance to the situation is on hold and at risk.
The mayor has directed city departments to not enforce the new ban on storage of personal items overnight in city parks. This allows the Venice Beach Recreation Area to remain a highly desirable campground for hundreds of “travelers” from all over the country and abroad. The mayor’s delay on the parks ordinance is inexplicable since no council members have proposed to amend it.
The mayor also asked city departments to not enforce the new, tighter restrictions on storage of personal items on sidewalks and asked the City Council to remove the misdemeanor penalty for violations. Bonin and Cedillo’s motions to accomplish this will gut the sidewalks ordinance by, among other measures, removing luggage, backpacks, clothing, documents, and medication, and household items from the definition of items that can be collected by the Department of Sanitation if not removed after 24 hours. Neither Sanitation workers nor LAPD officers have the time to sort through piles of “stuff” to find all the items that would get a pass from collection by city workers.
The mayor apparently fails to understand that under the Lavan Decision and the new ordinance, personal documents and medication will not be disposed of; they will be stored for 90 days and a notice left at the collection site with details of how to retrieve them.
With no possibility of a misdemeanor violation campers will not move their stuff for city cleanups or after the 24-hour grace period.
With no ability for the city to collect luggage, backpacks, clothing, documents, medication, and household items, the encampments in Venice on walk streets, on Third Street, and occasionally along Venice Boulevard will continue and spread, as we have already seen them creep into the Oakwood neighborhood.
With a stalemate on the language of amendments at the City’s Homelessness Committee, the mayor should get out of the way and tell city department heads to enforce both ordinances immediately. The pendulum has swung so far in recent years that the inmates are now running the asylum. It’s time to return some protections to our long-suffering residents who right now feel powerless to protect themselves.
Mark Ryavec is the president of the non-profit Venice Stakeholders Association.