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ACLU files suit on behalf of Santa Barbara homeless

Attorneys take issue with the city's anti-camping ordinance and seek a court order to keep all the beds at a local shelter available year-round.

March 07, 2009|Steve Chawkins

SANTA BARBARA — Accusing Santa Barbara officials of "unconscionable" violations in prosecuting homeless residents, ACLU attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Friday to overturn city bans on sleeping in public and camping at parks and beaches.

The attorneys also said they would seek a court order to keep all 200 beds in a Santa Barbara shelter available after April 1, when half of them are scheduled for their annual closure until December.

In forcing residents of Casa Esperanza back onto the street, the city is "manufacturing homelessness and perhaps death warrants," Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said at a Santa Barbara news conference. He said 11 of Santa Barbara's homeless people have died of various causes so far this year.

The lawsuit alleges that many homeless people are disabled and the city's policies violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last month, Laguna Beach repealed its anti-camping ordinance after a similar suit from the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2003, the ACLU sued Los Angeles over arrests on skid row, ultimately striking a deal allowing most sidewalk sleeping while banning encampments.

Santa Barbara officials said the city has been considering whether to expand the use of Casa Esperanza.

"We were already looking at keeping the shelter open this year, and possibly going through the planning process to see if we can keep it open year-round permanently," said City Atty. Steve Wiley. Neighbors -- mostly small retailers -- were initially told it would be operated at full capacity only in the four coldest months of the year, he said.

That restriction means that social workers and physicians must oust homeless people who are sick but not acutely ill enough for one of the shelter's 30 medical beds, according to the suit. And, from April to December, the remaining 70 beds are earmarked for people capable of joining the shelter's job and rehabilitation programs -- not the "chronically homeless," who must leave.

The April closure is "a real crisis for my patients," said Lynn Jahnke, a Santa Barbara physician who works with the homeless. "They deserve a safe place to sleep."

City officials said their anti-camping ordinance was passed after a series of beachfront murders in the 1970s.

"The lawsuit's legal theory apparently is . . . that there's a constitutional right to camp on the park or beach," Wiley said. "We just don't agree with that."

Wiley said police have not aggressively enforced the public sleeping measure for years, despite the suit's assertion that they routinely use it "to harass and intimidate" people who have no choice but to sleep in public.

The suit was filed on behalf of four homeless men living in Casa Esperanza. One of them, it said, had at one time run up $1,100 in fines for illegal camping and other offenses.

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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