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California Is 'Meanest' State for Homeless

An advocacy group's rankings also put Los Angeles as the nation's fourth-worst city.

August 06, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

With new laws against panhandling and sidewalk sleeping, tales of harassment and sweeps of encampments from Arcata to San Diego, California ranks as the "meanest" state in the nation in its treatment of homeless people, and Los Angeles weighs in as the fourth-meanest city, an advocacy group declared Tuesday.

San Francisco ranks second on the list of most inhospitable cities in the country, and Sacramento, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica rank in the top 20, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Las Vegas ranked as the city most inhospitable to homeless people, and New York City ranked third. Florida followed California as the second "meanest" state. The report surveyed advocates and legal professionals in 147 rural, urban and suburban communities around the country and concluded that more and more local governments are passing so-called quality-of-life ordinances -- and that money spent to enforce those laws do nothing to alleviate the root causes of homelessness.

Criteria for selection of the cities included the number of prohibitive laws, enforcement and severity of penalties, and the general political climate toward homeless people. The report found that 89% of the communities had at least one law, such as obstructing a sidewalk, that was considered intolerant of the homeless.

"The degree of tolerance is decreasing, but it is a direct reflection on the numbers of people becoming homeless," said coalition Executive Director Donald Whitehead in a phone interview. "The more people find themselves on the streets, the more the response is to vilify the homeless. It's also a response to the sagging economy. Communities have fewer resources to provide adequate supportive services."

Whitehead was speaking from a rally in Las Vegas, where the report said authorities have openly designated homeless people as "undesirable" and "brazenly" use jaywalking and other infractions as an excuse to target them.

An estimated 3.5 million people are homeless each year, according to national studies. A 2002 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that requests for emergency shelter had increased by 19% over the previous year. In California, state officials estimate that 350,000 people are homeless at some point over the course of a year.

Freda Radich, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, said the agency had not yet reviewed the report and could not comment.

The homeless coalition's report excoriated San Francisco for advertising campaigns that urge residents not to give money to panhandlers, police "harassment" to keep homeless people out of certain communities and efforts by Gavin Newsom, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, to slash cash assistance for poor single people and expand anti-panhandling laws. Newsom did not return a call seeking comment.

Los Angeles was cited for passing an ordinance against sleeping on sidewalks and for its police sweeps in the skid row area, described by the report as a battleground in the city's high-stakes effort to revitalize its downtown.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes skid row and who introduced several quality-of-life measures, did not return a call seeking comment.

Carol Schatz, executive director of Los Angeles' Central City Assn., said the report appears to argue that homeless people should be left on the streets in squalor.

"I find the report and its conclusions extraordinary," Schatz said. "The revitalization of downtown has not displaced one person. Buildings being converted to housing are empty and are being put to productive use. There are people living on the streets who want to live on the streets, and that is the population we are concerned about and that apparently advocates don't really want to talk about."

Los Angeles' skid row is a major focus of Police Chief William J. Bratton's efforts to vigorously enforce quality-of-life rules such as those against public urination. But civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild, filed a federal lawsuit to block the predawn raids that have resulted in hundreds of arrests.

The city subsequently agreed to stop rounding up homeless people and residents of skid row hotels unless they are suspected of committing a crime and to pay damages to 58 people improperly arrested.

Nevertheless, Bilal Ali, who lives in a skid row single-room hotel, said that nearly every week he sees police herding homeless people from the area around 6th and San Julian streets until it is nearly deserted.

"It's as if someone came to your house and told you you had 10 minutes to pick up everything and move," said Ali, an advocate with the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

But Officer Jack Richter, a police spokesman who has worked in the skid row area, denied the report's contention that the department unfairly targets homeless people. He said most officers are sympathetic to those who are truly destitute.

"What we do target are those who are preying on the homeless, people who are not reporting to their parole officer, openly using narcotics or committing crimes," Richter said.

The report also said a church in Milwaukee was declared a public nuisance for feeding homeless people and allowing them to sleep there. In Key West, Fla., a section of public beach was closed to prevent homeless people from camping. And in Montgomery County, Texas, officials put combination locks on restrooms in the county building to keep homeless people from using the facilities.

Whitehead said his group is asking the U.S. Department of Justice and the General Accounting Office to look at such laws and actions to determine if they are linked to reported increases in hate crimes against homeless people.

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