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LAPD Says Streets Are No Place Like Home

October 10, 2006

Here is a look at some of the legal issues surrounding camping by the homeless on the streets and sidewalks of skid row.

Question: Why is the issue so controversial?

Answer: The city of Los Angeles has an ordinance that prohibits people from camping on streets and sidewalks. Such camps are a particular problem on skid row, which has the city's largest concentration of homeless people. In 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit challenging the ordinance.

The suit was brought on behalf of six homeless people, including Robert Lee Purrie, who has lived in the skid row area for four decades and said he slept on the streets because he could not afford a hotel and there were not enough shelter beds. Purrie was cited for sleeping on the street twice before police arrested him in 2003. He spent a night in jail, was given a 12-month suspended sentence and was ordered to pay $195 in restitution and attorney's fees. When he was released, all of his possessions -- including his tent, blankets, cooking utensils and personal effects -- were gone, according to the suit.

Q: What happened to the lawsuit?

A: In April, a federal appeals court invalidated the city's sleeping ordinance, saying the Los Angeles Police Department cannot arrest people for sitting, lying or sleeping on public sidewalks on skid row. Because there are not enough shelter beds for the city's homeless, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw wrote in the majority opinion, prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on the streets was a violation of the 8th Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.

"The city ... apparently believes that [the plaintiffs] can avoid sitting, lying and sleeping for days, weeks or months at a time to comply with the city's ordinance, as if human beings could remain in perpetual motion. That being an impossibility, by criminalizing sitting, lying and sleeping, the city is in fact criminalizing [the plaintiffs'] status as homeless individuals," Wardlaw wrote. In dissent, Judge Pamela A. Rymer wrote that the LAPD "does not punish people simply because they are homeless. It targets conduct -- sitting, lying or sleeping on city sidewalks -- that can be committed by those with homes as well as those without."

Q: What was the city's response to the ruling?

A: At first, some city officials said they wanted to appeal the ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But eventually, the mayor, Police Chief William J. Bratton and other leaders signed off on a proposed settlement of the lawsuit. The compromise would allow police to arrest people camping, sleeping or lying on sidewalks between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. on skid row but allow the homeless to have the camps at night. The settlement would also prohibit encampments at any time within 10 feet of a business or residential entrance.

Q: What happened?

A: The City Council rejected the settlement, saying it would set a bad precedent. Council members said they worried that the deal would allow the ACLU to make the same argument in other parts of the city, possibly resulting in people sleeping on sidewalks in Hollywood, Venice and elsewhere. Some also thought the city might prevail if it took the case to the Supreme Court.

Q: But a week ago, the LAPD began arresting people camping on the street, right?

A: Yes. Bratton authorized arrests on skid row during the day after the city attorney's office issued an opinion saying that would be legal. The office concluded that the court ruling applied only to camping at night, so the LAPD could enforce the ordinance during the day.

The LAPD also said there were more than 100 shelter beds available this week. An ACLU spokesman questioned whether the arrests complied with the April ruling.

Q: Who is being arrested?

A: Police arrested two men last week for violating the sleeping ordinance. They were booked after they refused to respond to officers' warnings to move. They were released to a homeless services agency.

Q: Where does L.A. stand on the issue of camping by the homeless compared with other cities?

A: Los Angeles' policy is considered one of the most restrictive in the nation.

Other communities have tried milder variations of the same approach. Portland, Ore., and Las Vegas, for example, bar sleeping or standing on a sidewalk or other public space only if it obstructs pedestrians or cars, and Seattle, Tucson and Houston limit the hours of enforcement, according to the federal appeals court ruling.

Q: What other legal options does the city have?

A: Bratton has suggested an ordinance making it illegal to use camping gear on sidewalks.

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