Last night I was walking near Bixby Park when a lady with a shopping cart asked to pet my dogs. I obliged and the lady proceeded to tell me that “I have one of my own, but he’s in ‘doggy jail’ after I got picked up on another unpaid ticket warrant”. I asked her what happened. “LBPD tells us not to sleep on the beach and to go to Rainbow Lagoon, and guess where all my tickets come from”. “Now I have to pay $100 to get him out of there”.
Given the already near-impossible task of raising that $100, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she could get a ticket for panhandling in this city.
I know about the anti-homeless ticketing policies in Long Beach because I used to be in a position to at least recommend changes to a system that (by any objective view) is unconstitutional, non-sensical, and inhuman.
Forced evictions constitute gross violations of a range of internationally recognized human rights, including the human rights to adequate housing, food, water, health, education, work, security of the person, freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and freedom of movement.
A few months ago when I was working for the (now) Mayor of Long Beach, Robert Garcia, I was tasked to investigate the circumstances and policy implications behind an incident involving two volunteers from Mr. Garcia’s Mayoral campaign. These volunteers (who were also constituents of Robert’s city council seat), received tickets for feeding homeless people in a park adjacent to city hall. Specifically they were cited for distributing food without a license to do so; a health and safety measure that on its face is nondiscriminatory, but is being employed in a discriminatory manner (on the basis of wealth). Essentially we had a perfectly fine law, intended to be used to prevent unlicensed restaurants from creating a public health risk, being used instead to constructively evict homeless people from the city. I reported my findings to my Chief of Staff, but changes came to the ordinance in question, nor (to my knowledge) was any substantive change in policy implemented by the City Prosecutor or the LBPD.
With the recent arrest of Arnold Abbott, the 90 year old activist in Ft. Lauderdale who has continued to feed the local homeless population despite a new law restricting such activities, there is now a renewed focus on these pernicious and (frankly) evil laws that exist throughout cities in this county. And indeed even the Federal Government has taken notice of both the reasoning and effects of these local laws. But despite a 2012 Department of Justice Handbook (one that I personally made available to both Garcia and his replacement at District 1) recommending vast changes to ordinances against “illegal camping”, “food distribution”, and “panhandling”, there is little to no political will to change the system in place.
If anything things are getting worse for the homeless both nationwide and specifically inside of Long Beach. Instead of cities investing in a true “housing first” strategy to address the growing problem of extreme poverty in the wake of the financial crisis, city politicians and bureaucrats have largely taken the unbelievably cynical route of justifying massive cuts to social services on the basis of fiscal prudence, while simultaneously increasing anti-homeless citation efforts and building municipal infrastructure in a way to prevent access by the poor.
Politicians do this because they know that the homeless don’t vote, and that the people with property do not want to even see homeless people, much less interact with them in a public restroom, park, or library. Anti-camping laws are used to create uncertainty for the homeless over where they can safely leave their property or sleep. Access to safe restroom facilities and drinkable water are denied after dark or in their entirety (“we’re in a drought after all“). Asking for food or money, (the later of which can be done freely by children or by a charity without cause for worry) becomes “loitering” or “soliciting”, and can be citable by police. All of these offenses can either result in a detention on criminal charges or sizable fines (at a 10% interest rate in California) for the person subjected to them.
In the face of these regulations the message to homeless individuals from the community is abundantly clear: get out.
This sort of detestable treatment exists on a bipartisan basis. Ellen Degeneres donated $10,000 to the Santa Barbra’s Sheriffs office to fund a bicycle unit devoted to handing out these anti-homeless citations. Here in Long Beach the “Friends of the Bixby Park” provided the city with a $30,000 donation to install obnoxious, super-bright LED lights in the park that serve no purpose other than to make the area unusable as a sleeping space for the local homeless population. Friends of Bixby board member Claudia Schou is also on record as opposing the rehabilitation of a restroom in the park because “Most visitors do not use the restroom”. Schou’s claim is both hilariously untrue and demonstrative of her groups intent to create a space that is only accessible to people with a home (facts that make it truly scary how much the group has influenced the voting of 2nd District Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal as of late).
It should be obvious that these anti-homeless policies are; inherently discriminatory, counter to good public health practices, not in anyway fiscally prudent (our jails become de-facto public housing eventually), and exist only because local politicians are almost universally cowards. But the impetus for changing these laws isn’t just coming from activists and annoying bloggers like myself. The courts across the country in both blue and red states, are striking down these measures for a variety of different reasons. Church groups (like the one that reached out to Mayor Garcia) defeated a feeding bans in Dallas on the basis that the law represented an unlawful restriction on religious freedom. The ACLU used a similar tactic to force a Federal Judge to strike down Orlando’s ban. And here in California there is a continued effort to force the state to enact a “Homeless Bill of Rights” after the 9th Circuit went H.A.M. on the City of LA’s violation of homeless property rights and idiotic ban on sleeping in cars.
These cases are litigated by cities at a great expense to tax payers by cities that steadfastly defend these laws. Despite the fact that the ordinances in question plainly violate the US Constitution, the UN Charter on Human Rights, and any sense of common decency, legislators are cognizant about how voters like you and me (i.e. those with roofs over our heads) are uncomfortable co-existing in the same space as the homeless. As a society we want these people to be unseen and unheard, maybe because they disgust us, or perhaps because they serve as a tangible reminder that the only thing separating us from them is a few paychecks.
It is time for this situation to change.
Ending poverty in Long Beach was a central tenant in several of the municipal campaigns that took place in 2014, including that of Robert Garcia- who spoke at length about the difficult situation he faced as a child after his family moved to California from Peru. Providing adequate housing and services for the homeless will be difficult, and requires a long term commitment from our city stakeholders. However our Mayor and City Council have it within their sole discretion, especially with a new police chief, to end these anti-homeless policies and direct our public safety officials to re-engage with this segment of the Long Beach Community in a manner befitting a supposedly enlightened society like ours.
The lady from the park finished petting my dogs and thanked me. I wish I had a few dollars to give her, but sadly I’m unemployed at the moment; partly because I advocated for policies that would have made this woman’s life a little less despondent. I just hope a few moments of scratching my dog’s head made her feel better about sleeping in a city where people have treated her so unkindly.