The Continuing Criminalization of Homelessness in Los Angeles

On March 14, 2016, the City of Los Angeles was hit with yet another lawsuit regarding its treatment of homeless residents. The lawsuit, Mitchell v. City of Los Angeles, contends that the city is dealing with its homelessness problem by criminalizing rather than housing its homeless population.

Los Angeles has the largest chronically homeless population in the country [1] and has faced several lawsuits regarding its treatment of homeless people before. For example, in Jones v. City of Los Angeles in 2006, the Ninth Circuit struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that banned sleeping, sitting, or lying on the street at any time of the day. The judge reasoned that the ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment because it punished “involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks,” which was the “unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.” Additionally, in Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles in 2014, the Ninth Circuit struck down another Los Angeles ordinance that banned using a vehicle as living quarters. The judge reasoned that the ordinance was so vague that it did not provide notice of the conduct it punished and could therefore be used for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against homeless people.

Like earlier cases, Mitchell alleges that Los Angeles criminalizes homelessness rather than alleviates homelessness. Yet instead of targeting unconstitutional ordinances, Mitchell targets unconstitutional police tactics. The complaint details several instances in which Los Angeles police allegedly acted illegally: the police took and destroyed a plaintiff’s tent without a notice and warrant; the police arrested two plaintiffs for possession of a stolen shopping cart even though they insisted the shopping carts in question were not theirs; and the police seized the medications and other personal property of one of the wrongfully arrested plaintiffs without giving him a receipt for the property. The lawsuit contends that the City violated the Fourth, Fifth, Fourteenth Amendments, and other federal and state statutes in these instances.

Ironically, this lawsuit comes a month after Los Angeles approved a $2 billion plan to address homelessness over the next decade. The plan includes appointing a city homeless coordinator, building public restrooms and showers, and investing in affordable housing for those who cannot afford the City’s rising rents and home prices. Despite concerns that Los Angeles will have trouble negotiating the funding needed for the ambitious $2 billion plan, city officials were self-congratulatory when the plan passed, saying it was a “historical moment” for Los Angeles.

However, before the funding is secured and new housing is built, the City will continue to have a large homeless population. During this transitional period, the City needs to stop the criminalization of homelessness and start respecting the dignity of its homeless residents.

Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo recently complained that the city was being “constantly sued” over its treatment of the homeless and “constantly losing.” He lamented that the cases meant the City was spending money on court cases that it should be spending on services.

To prevent future lawsuits, the City of Los Angeles should review its laws and practices regarding the treatment of its homeless population. The City should work to respect the basic Constitutional rights and human dignity of its homeless residents as it lays the foundation for its ambitious $2 billion plan to end homelessness.

[1] Los Angeles has a chronically homeless population of 12,356, which is almost 15% of all chronically homeless individuals nationally. Los Angeles has nearly 4 times as many chronically homeless individuals as New York City, which has the second largest number of chronically homeless individuals (3,275).

 

Written by

Alice Wang is a 1L at HLS. She is interested in access to justice, consumer protection, and education policy. Prior to law school, she received a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard College and worked at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. This summer, she will be interning at the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.

Latest comment
  • this is wrong to condemn homeless people just ,because there poor its wrong wrong wrong help them not discriminate them give them affordable houseing ,and you wont have this problem.I am a former long time resident of LA, but i left la for personal reasons please help them its only fair,thank you.

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