Removing Criminal Penalties for the Homeless



The Los Angeles City Council will consider a
recommendation today to remove criminal penalties from a controversial city law that prohibits the storage of personal property, including items belonging to the homeless, on sidewalks and other public areas.

Advocates for the homeless rallied at City Hall last week to urge city
leaders to strike out misdemeanor and financial penalties imposed on those who violate the law, which allows the city to give 24-hour notice before homeless encampments would need to be dismantled or personal items moved to a storage facility.

“We hope that you will take action that day to decriminalize
homelessness, decriminalize the possession of property in public areas,” Becky Dennison, a co-founder of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, told council members Friday.

Dennison and others have been calling on the full 15-member City Council to support recommendations by the Homelessness and Poverty Committee to remove criminal penalties from the law, known as 56.11.

The removal of the misdemeanors faces resistance from some residents groups, as well as some council members. Mark Ryavec of the Venice Stakeholders group said criminal penalties are needed to enforce the law.

“The misdeameanor penalty must remain or campers will not comply with orders of city workers to remove their belongings to effectuate clean-ups,” he said in an email.

But pressure on city leaders to change the encampment laws could also come from another source, other than local advocates for the homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently revised their funding criteria to penalize grant applications from municipalities that criminalize homelessness, which could hurt Los Angeles’s chances of receiving federal funding, some city and county officials have said.

Dennison’s group, LACAN, and more than 100 other groups and “civic leaders” are also urging the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti to set aside $100 million per year to build permanent supportive housing for the homeless and those who are low-income, and to stop spending an estimated $87 million per year on law enforcement programs affecting the homeless.

The council is also expected to set up a fund account today, but
Dennison said none of the promised $100 million expected to go into it has yet to be identified.

City leaders also announced in September that they plan to declare an emergency, or more accurately, a “shelter crisis,” around homelessness, which could ease rules that currently slows down the ability to make shelter or housing available to the homeless.

Under state law, the city can declare a shelter crisis to more easily
provide beds and put roofs over those who would otherwise be living on the streets.

The city, however, has limited itself by adopting a law that restricts
the declaration of a shelter crisis to the winter months, even though the state law does not restrict the allowable duration of the crisis. An ordinance would need to be drafted to allow the shelter crisis to be declared for the year-round homelessness problem.

Declaring the shelter crisis, as described in a motion by several City
Council members, would allow the city to more quickly convert public city facilities into shelters, and also could open up parking lots and allow owners of private property, such as churches, to make space available to the homeless.

If the City Council moves forward with a motion to declare the shelter crisis, the City Attorney would still need to draft the ordinance and bring it back to the full council for another vote.

A shelter crisis is different from the more commonly known “local
emergency,” which can be initiated by the mayor and would grant him or her wide powers to use personnel, supplies and other resources to “protect life or property.”

– from CNS