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Lawyers Team Up to Fight for the Homeless

September 18, 1986|FRANK CLANCY | Clancy lives in Venice. and

A typical lawyer's brief is often unintelligible--a morass of technical jargon and prolix sentences. A brief filed July 28 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, though, was not like most others.

In clear and simple language it tells about the life of the homeless in Los Angeles and, allegedly, in Skid Row hotels from which the county purchases emergency housing. The tale--often told in the words of homeless men and women--is as relentless as it is horrifying.

A Man's Lament

"Every window was broke in my room," one man says in the brief, filed in the case of Paris vs. Board of Supervisors. "At night my room was real airish, a lot of wind was blowing in, making it difficult to sleep. It's very difficult to sleep when it's cold. . . . If a man can't lie down in peace and be warm, why lay down? A man can do the same thing in the street."

The brief goes on to say the homeless are sometimes sent to hotels that smell unbearably; where bathrooms and showers are filthy; where rooms are filled with trash or infested with vermin; where sheets and mattresses are torn and dirty and the water does not work; where windows are broken, there are no screens or locks, and electrical wires are exposed; and where some people feel so threatened they return to the streets.

Paris vs. Board of Supervisors is part of a three-year effort by local attorneys to assure that the homeless population in Los Angeles County, estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, receive adequate shelter. Known loosely as the Homeless Litigation Team, the attorneys have filed six lawsuits against Los Angeles County and one against the state Department of Social Services since December, 1983. Participating in the effort are a number of public interest law firms, including the Inner City Law Center, San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

The Paris brief, however, was researched and written primarily by a new member of the Homeless Litigation Team, the Century City law firm of Irell & Manella. Since July, 1985, the 131-attorney business and commercial firm has worked with a zeal usually reserved for high-priced litigation: 30 Irell & Manella attorneys and dozens of secretaries and paralegals have worked on the Paris case, which the firm is handling pro bono (for free). The Irell team has catalogued more than 14,000 pieces of evidence, 75% of it in a computer data base.

Enforcing the Codes

What lawyers say they want in the Paris case is for their clients to receive clean, safe accommodations in welfare hotels and for governments to enforce strictly the myriad health, housing and fire codes. That, attorneys say, would help indigents recover from the shock of living on the street, and get on with their lives.

This move to the courts reflects a nationwide trend of attorneys suing on behalf of the homeless: Not since the 1970s, when civil rights lawyers challenged desegregation plans across the United States, have they played such a prominent role in shaping social policy.

In Los Angeles, homeless litigation was conceived after tenant lawyers noticed a dramatic change in what happened to their clients after being evicted. "In the '70s," said Gary Blasi, an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and a leading advocate of the homeless, "if you represented somebody in an eviction and they lost, they moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom apartment, or from Los Feliz to Echo Park. Increasingly, people began moving from crummy apartments to nothing, to living in cars. You can only listen to those stories so many times without being affected."

The 170 declarations of the homeless filed in Paris vs. Board of Supervisors are the cornerstone of what Blasi, 40, calls "bringing the ugly reality of the streets and alleys into the courtroom"; "life on the streets is completely incomprehensible to most judges," he has written.

The Personal Side

The work takes a personal toll. "This is not a job you leave at five and forget about," said Blasi, the father of two sons, ages 7 and 11. "It has affected my kids--they know what I do, and what's going on. That's also one of the reasons I do it. I do not want them to grow up in a country that thinks it's OK to let people die on the streets."

The first local suit successfully challenged a rule that required an applicant to supply identification before receiving emergency housing. Others suits have challenged the size of the county's general relief (welfare) stipend (now $247, up from $228 when challenged), its system of penalizing welfare recipients, and its treatment of the mentally disabled. Another case challenged the policy of issuing the homeless $8 checks for housing, an insufficient amount, attorneys maintained. A Skid Row hotel typically rents for $240 a month.

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