SANTA ANA — Public interest lawyers Thursday sued five cities in three Southern California counties, challenging the constitutionality of municipal ordinances that prohibit the homeless from camping on public property.
"Making homelessness a crime cannot eliminate the problem of homelessness," said attorney Harry Simon of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. "These ordinances are not a magic wand that will prevent people who lack housing from living on the streets."
Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society and the National Lawyers Guild announced that they had filed suit against the cities of Fullerton, Long Beach, Orange, Santa Ana and Santa Barbara on the grounds that the municipalities' "anti-homeless" ordinances are unconstitutional.
The attorneys announced the legal challenge at the Santa Ana Civic Center, where police armed with a newly adopted anti-camping ordinance Wednesday shooed away those who remained in an encampment that had sheltered 200 people at times in the past several years. The makeshift tent-and-shack city had been erected in parking lots and public spaces that surround the seat of city and county government.
The lawsuits filed Thursday claim that ordinances aimed at the homeless subject them to "cruel and unusual punishment" and deprive them of their constitutional right of "freedom of movement."
"We have challenged the constitutionality of laws which criminalize begging or the mere asking for work by day laborers; in other words, speech used by the poorest and the politically powerless of our society for survival," said ACLU attorney Robin S. Toma of Los Angeles.
"Now these cities have gone one step further with anti-camping laws. . . . Your mere existence as a homeless person, surviving, living and sleeping on the streets has become a crime," he said.
Santa Ana City Atty. Edward Cooper said there is no merit to the lawsuit: "These kinds of laws have already been upheld at the state and federal supreme courts. I'm not concerned."
The attorneys also singled out Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and the city of Santa Monica, saying they would be sued if Reiner or the city attempted to prosecute the homeless for sleeping in public places.
Tuesday night, during an explosive public meeting, the Santa Monica City Council fired veteran City Atty. Robert M. Myers for not cracking down on the homeless; Myers refused to enforce that city's new anti-camping laws.
James Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles said the attorneys are prepared to legally challenge Reiner if he follows through on his threat to use an "ancient anti-lodging" state law to prosecute the homeless in Santa Monica.
Donald Sims, a homeless man from Long Beach, appeared at the news conference to say that what has happened to him could happen to anyone.
"No job is safe today," he said. "You too could be out of a job and not be able to make your house payments. You could be just like me, a homeless person."
Simon of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County said the solution to the homeless problem lies in providing more housing, drug and alcohol treatment, and mental health programs.
"If homeless people are forced out of Santa Ana, they will only appear in greater numbers in Huntington Beach, Venice or elsewhere," he said. "This is a problem for our region and it demands regional solutions."
Times correspondent Maresa Archer contributed to this report.