Report Highlights Criminalization of Homeless in LA

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homelessLOS ANGELES (CN) — A nationwide report calling for an end to the criminalization of homelessness on the streets sent a message to Los Angeles, which last week moved forward with a law that will cite people for sleeping overnight in their cars in areas near schools, homes, and parks.

The report, “Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” cites numerous tactics authorities use against homeless people, including prohibitions on moving, resting, sitting, standing, lying down or sleeping in public.

These policies exacerbate homelessness and violate civil rights, according to the 73-page report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Lack of affordable housing is the greatest barrier to solving the problem of homelessness, the National Law Center says. Seven million people in the nation do not have access to affordable housing, as wages stagnate.

“The loss of subsidized housing has corresponded with increasing unaffordability in the private housing market. Increased demand for rental units and low vacancy rates have caused rents to rise at an annual rate of 3.5 percent — the quickest pace in three decades,” the report states.

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles attorney Shayla Myers said in an interview that the City Council’s proposed ban on sleeping in cars makes life “extremely difficult” for homeless people.

“Criminalization of homelessness and laws that make it a crime to be homeless make it harder for people to move out of homelessness. They waste resources that are scarce as it is,”  Myers said. “Locking people up who are homeless is never going to be the answer.”

The City Council, though, believes action is needed to curb crime and protect public safety. The ordinance will allow parking and sleeping in certain commercial or industrial areas between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to the LA Times. At a Nov. 9 meeting, City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said hundreds of thousands of people are turning “curbs into an apartment.”

“That’s just not fair to anybody,” Harris-Dawson said.

Myers, however, said Los Angeles residents want policies that help people get off the streets.

The attorney said that under the ordinance, penalties start at $25 for a first offense and rise to $50 and $75 for subsequent offenses. The penalties quickly become prohibitive to homeless people when other fees are included. A fine is closer to $200 with other costs, she said.

“The problem is, people who are homeless as a result of the city’s failed policies are still ending up in jails, are still being cited, are still required to pay exorbitant fines because of their status as homeless individuals,” Myers said.

According to the report, more than one-third of U.S. cities prevent people from living in vehicles — a 143 percent increase since 2006.

Los Angeles residents on Election Day approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to provide up to 10,000 safe and affordable housing units for people who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness.

That will be a key component in the battle against homelessness in a county where the average rent is projected to rise to about $1,400 a month in 2018, according to the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast.

The National Law Center calls for city leaders to tackle the homeless crisis in ways that do not rely on criminal action.

“We can end homelessness in America, and in doing so improve the quality of life for everyone. This will not happen, however, as long as communities continue to rely upon misguided criminalization policies that punish people for being homeless, without offering real solutions to the problem,” the report states.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported this week that there are 13,000 chronically homeless people in the city of Los Angeles with 95 percent of them living in cars, tents and encampments. With 47,000 homeless, the county has the dubious honor of having the largest homeless population in the country.