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Santa Monica's homeless headache

The city is known for its humane treatment of street people, but are the laws being applied equally to all individuals?

July 30, 2009|Gary Blasi | Gary Blasi is a professor at the UCLA School of Law.

When the ACLU and a prominent private law firm sued the city of Santa Monica recently regarding the treatment by its police of homeless people with disabilities, the reaction from city officials was swift, understandable and predictable. After all, Santa Monica has long enjoyed a reputation for being a liberal, humane city with a track record of helping homeless people, in sharp contrast to neighboring Los Angeles, recently named the "meanest" city in the United States by national homeless advocacy groups.

Santa Monica's city manager described officials as "extremely surprised, disappointed and very perplexed," given the city's efforts to assist homeless people. Councilman Bobby Shriver claimed, probably accurately, that "Santa Monica spends more per capita and has more shelter beds [per capita] than any city in the state." Certainly, as compared with the many cities in Los Angeles County that spend next to nothing on the problem and refuse even to acknowledge the existence of homeless people on their streets, Santa Monica stacks up well.

The ACLU lawsuit paints a different picture. The complaint on behalf of six homeless and disabled individuals describes alleged harassment and mistreatment by police officers, including arrests for "camping" when they lie down in the middle of the night and constant orders to "move on" to other communities and "get out of Santa Monica." The complaint alleges that this is part of general city policies aimed at making life in Santa Monica as difficult as possible for homeless people.

So what's going on? Most opinions on the case, in the news media or on the Web, take a side, implying that either the ACLU or Santa Monica officials have their facts wrong. But could it be that both are correct?

The problem comes from a basic psychological phenomenon: We all tend to place people we do not know into categories -- such as "the homeless" -- and then react to the category rather than to individuals. We also construct categories, such as "liberal cities," when doing so is inappropriate. There are as many differences among homeless individuals as there are among people who are housed. And even "liberal" cities can have policies, or employees, that are anything but.

Certainly Santa Monica deserves credit for helping some people with serious disabilities get into permanent supportive housing, a program that is not only more humane but less expensive than responding to people on the streets. At last count, this effort had reached 37 of the 915 homeless people the city most recently counted on its streets.

This may not seem like much, but it compares well with a nearly identical, and equally admirable, effort by the county and city of Los Angeles to move 50 people on skid row into supportive housing, given that the city of Los Angeles has more than 40,000 people on its streets on any given night.

And Santa Monica does spend a much greater proportion of its discretionary revenue on responding to homelessness than does the city of Los Angeles, in part because Santa Monica has about 2.4 times the per-capita tax revenue available.

At the same time, however, Santa Monica has also taken aggressive action that seems aimed at encouraging homeless individuals, in the alleged words of its police officers, to "move on." The city's budget documents praise "the rigid enforcement of laws and ordinances to discourage" what it calls "encampments." The budget included $250,000 for "homeless intervention" but also $240,000 for a panhandling education campaign, presumably to reduce giving to people perceived to be homeless. And last winter, Santa Monica closed pickup locations from which homeless people could get to cold-weather shelters in adjacent cities.

It seems clear that both Santa Monica and the ACLU may be right, but about different propositions. Santa Monica officials may think themselves generous and humane in dealing with "the homeless." But does doing good for some people excuse the mistreatment of other people we place in the same category? Certainly not, because the right to be treated in accordance with the law and simple decency is a right that belongs to individuals, not to groups. Treating 99 people in a category well is not a defense to an assault on the person or rights of a 100th person.

If the allegations of mistreatment set out in the ACLU's complaint are true, then Santa Monica should address the policies and problems behind them and not hide behind a defense that the city also has good programs for "the homeless."

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