A new plan by City Councilwoman Jan Perry to clean up the streets of skid row in downtown Los Angeles has been praised by a wide range of interests, but criticized by civil libertarians who worry that the dispossessed may be needlessly rousted from their precarious sidewalk encampments.
"This is not about moving people. This is not about the police," said Perry, flanked by about two dozen social service providers. "This is about protecting people's health."
Speaking at San Julian Park on 5th Street, Perry unveiled the cleanup proposal in front of a large audience of homeless people and residents of the neighborhood's cut-rate hotels.
City crews plan to increase cleanups of sidewalks and streets in the district southeast of the Civic Center, with police also stepping up their escorts of the crews to ensure that the homeless move aside so the work can be done.
The pilot program has won the support of several downtown business organizations and many homeless advocates, who said the poor are entitled to the same clean streets as other citizens. But the plan drew the ire of local activist Alice Callaghan, who accused Perry of pacifying the downtown business community at the expense of the homeless.
"We say, 'Shame on her,' " said Callaghan of Las Familias del Pueblo. "It is the poor of skid row who need her, not the rich."
Carol Sobel of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the Los Angeles Police Department last year on behalf of skid row's homeless, said her organization would monitor the effort.
LAPD Accepts Rules on Treatment of Homeless
The ACLU and other lawyers sued the LAPD in federal court last year to prevent officers from stopping the homeless, interrogating them and searching them without probable cause, Sobel said.
Just this week, the two sides signed a settlement agreement. The document was submitted to U.S. District Court in Los Angeles Thursday for a judge's approval, Sobel said.
"They can clean the streets all day long if they want," she said. "They still have to comply with the terms of the settlement. . . . As long as they abide by those agreements, there isn't an issue."
Under the settlement, the Police Department has agreed not to stop homeless people without cause or to force them to move when they are merely standing on the sidewalk, Sobel said.
In addition, the pending court agreement prohibits city cleanup crews from taking and disposing of property, a key concern of homeless people.
Police will instead be required to post a notice near makeshift shelters, bedrolls or cardboard homes stating that owners have 12 hours to claim their property to prevent it from being removed. Once taken away, the possessions will have to be stored for 90 days, giving owners a chance to reclaim them, Sobel said.
Such policies are particularly important because of the realities of life on skid row, an area that stretches south and east of Main Street.
Most skid row shelters require their clients to leave before dawn, giving them no choice but to take their possessions onto the streets.
"They have to take all the property with them," Sobel said. "There's no place to store it."
In the past, street people who left property unattended to find a shower, or to warm themselves on the sunny side of the street, often returned to find their belongings carted away, she said.
"The difficulty is [that] people are losing identification. They're losing their [medication]," Sobel said. "They're losing all their property."
The problem arose as recently as last week, when public works crews took shopping carts "and dumped them in the streets and would not allow [people] to retrieve their possessions," Sobel said. "That violates not only state law; it violates the terms of the settlement agreement."
William White, director of the city Bureau of Street Services, said his agency was trying to confirm the validity of the complaint.
"We certainly don't condone that as a policy," he said. "Sometimes mistakes are made. We make every effort to make sure that doesn't happen."
Perry said she was unaware of any allegations and promised that the new program would operate within "our legal boundaries."
More Street Crews, More Often With Police
Cleanliness of sidewalks and streets has long been a problem on skid row. Scores of people sleep on the streets in large cardboard boxes, tents or blankets. Some also relieve themselves in the open.
In some areas of skid row, there has been so much human waste that bacteria counts in runoff water have exceeded the levels considered safe for human contact, city officials said.
The unclean conditions can nurture a variety of illnesses and vermin, from typhus and tuberculosis to ticks, mites and rats, White said.
Basic aesthetic standards should also be adhered to, Perry said. "This community deserves to look like the rest of the city," she said. "This is not tolerated in Westwood."