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Debate Over Rights of Trailer Occupants : Family Threatened With Eviction

August 27, 1989|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | Times Staff Writer

Britt was not about to comply. She marshaled the same moxie that pulled her through cancer, diagnosed by her doctor as terminal in 1985. The illness triggered her family's declining circumstances, she said. Now she is in remission.

She also refused to believe that being homeless meant she had forfeited her constitutional right to due process. "I told them I had worked hard to get this far. 'Don't do things to put me out on the curb,' " Britt, 39, said.

Legal Aid Foundation attorneys, who, since the inception of the program, have said trailer occupants are entitled to full tenants' rights, including an unlawful detainer hearing in court before being evicted.

'It's Like Second Grade'

Although generally enthusiastic about the trailer program, Legal Aid attorney Roderick Field said he found some on-site managers "pretty arbitrary and paternalistic. . . . It's like second grade. I've heard of jails that are a little looser."

Some service organizations, said Legal Aid attorney Mary Lou Villar, have set up the trailer programs as a "dictatorship" that capitalizes on homeless people's fears, threatening them with being put back out on the streets at the slightest provocation. "They don't lose all their human rights they have as human beings to dignity," she claims.

Henderson said the West Los Angeles program provides a plethora of amenities, including "a very nice trailer in a very nice part of town," counseling, child care, camp and trips to Disneyland for the children. "If you were homeless and in need of a place to live that badly, I don't think we ask anything unreasonable."

The program does not take advantage of the desperate straits of the homeless, who will likely agree to almost anything in exchange for six months of shelter, Henderson said.

Seeks a Middle Ground

Susan Flores, director of human resources for Los Angeles' Community Development Department, said she seeks a middle ground for a program that has been, in large part, a success; 116 families have gone on to permanent housing.

She attributes the problems to the program's newness. For example, some providers used the same regulations they used in the much more communal atmosphere of temporary shelters, which require closer monitoring than might be needed in single-family dwellings, Flores said.

Flores said her department is studying the rules at all the trailer sites and intends to standardize guidelines within a month. "The questions are, first, are the rules appropriate? and, if they are appropriate, what happens if you break the rules?" she said. "We don't want people equating using drugs with knocking on the manager's door at the wrong time."

Ideally, the program can be rigorous, without being overbearing, with the responsibility for success--or failure--resting with the individual, Flores said. Those who enter the trailer program must understand that their living quarters are a fringe benefit available only if they uphold their part of the contract.

The Last Word

Legislation may provide the last word as to whether the homeless have tenant rights if they live in trailers. Assistant City Atty. Julie Downey said the trailer parks are hybrids that don't fit into a clearly defined legal category. Somewhere between unceremonious ouster and interminable eviction hearings, there is a middle ground, she said.

(Downey said she--and others--had hoped to tiptoe around the legal quandary while the trailer program was in its infancy.)

Meanwhile, Downey and Flores said that for now, trailer occupants will be afforded full tenant rights. The decision coincided with Britt's eviction flap, a situation that both women insist is not indicative of the program at large.

However, Henderson said the Salvation Army has not conceded its legal position, nor will it accede to rules with which it does not agree. "The Salvation Army is going to want to have some say in how they run a program. It's their name and reputation," he said.

'Overlook the Matter'

As for Britt, Henderson said they have decided "to overlook the matter and let her stay until the original length of her term."

Murphy said she tries to steer clear of Britt, who continues to break the rules by having overnight guests and refusing to register her visitors. "She's still here. She should be grateful," Murphy said.

Thus when Mayor Bradley honored those who had contributed time, money and energy to his pet project in a ceremony at the West Los Angeles trailer park Thursday, Britt still had a home.

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