City of Angels

Where: Los Angeles, California, United States

When: 4 – 7 November 2013

Who: Public Counsel, Inner City Law Center, Skid Row Housing Trust and Professor Gary Blasi, UCLA

The context – intact windows, safer cities? 

There are over 58,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County.  LA’s Skid Row has the highest concentration of homelessness in the United States, with an estimated 5000 people living in a 50 block area.

This concentration of homeless Angelenos made LA’s homelessness problem largely invisible to the mainstream (or indeed exceedingly wealthy) population for decades.  Out of sight, out of mind (although not, of course, for the countless services working with the homeless community day-to-day).  The steady ebb of gentrification has, however, got the downtown area in its sights — the central location is increasingly sought after for business and residential use and the in-your-face hardship of Skid Row sits uneasily with this shift.

It’s in this context — i.e. a high concentration of homelessness, and the hardships that accompany it, in a changing city landscape — that the Safer Cities Initiative was commenced in September 2006 and 50 additional LAPD officers were added to patrol the central LA area, in particular a five block area of Skid Row.  The increased police presence is underpinned by the ‘broken windows’ theory, an idea from the 1980s, which suggests that minor forms of disorder (e.g. jaywalking, begging a.k.a panhandling, graffiti and litter) will, if left unaddressed, result in an increase in serious criminal activity.  The approach focusses on cleaning up minor disorder with a view to reducing serious crime.

It’s a hotly contested theory and one that I’ll explore more throughout the fellowship.  For now, it can safely be said that LA has taken a tough enforcement-based approach to homelessness (in the first 8 months of the Safer Cities Initiative, 8000 citations / infringements were issued).  Accordingly, as a jurisdiction that has walked a long way down the ‘criminalisation’ path, LA provides some insights into the potential impacts of such an approach.

We're all in the gutter, except some of us are driving sports cars.

We’re all in the gutter, except some of us are driving sports cars.

When the shelter was too full, the beds had to go outside - image from Public Counsel

When the shelter was too full, the beds had to go outside – image from Public Counsel

RISK mural. Part of the Skid Row Freewalls Project collaborated by the Skid Row Housing Trust and LALA Arts.

RISK mural. Part of the Skid Row Freewalls Project collaborated by the Skid Row Housing Trust and LALA Arts.

IMG_0751Observations and reflections 

I had the privilege of discussing the impact of LA’s enforcement-based approach to homelessness with a range of people dealing with it day-to-day.  Twelve of my key observations and reflections (not yet conclusions!) are below.

  1. Types of public space offences – the main activities homeless people in LA are ticketed for are: jaywalking, fare evasion, possessing an open container of liquor in public, illegal use of shopping carts and blocking the sidewalk.
  2. Impact on people – ‘over policing’ the homeless population causes people to cycle in and out of jail; it doesn’t address homelessness, it just moves it.  One person I heard about was a woman called Annie.  Annie has been arrested 93 times and the first 60 times were for being on the same corner of the same intersection (under a provision that prohibits sitting, lying or sleeping on the footpath).  She moved corners and the process started again.  She has recently spent six months in prison.  She is homeless and has a mental illness.   Another housing lawyer I spoke with said that a lot of the issues he sees with people facing eviction for rent arrears are ‘to do with other baggage’, including trying to pay their citations or warrants. It’s hard for people to prioritise and it can jeopardise their housing.
  3. Pressure on the courts and services –  one of the service-based accompaniments to the ‘tough love’ approach of the Safer Cities Initiative, is the Homeless Court program, created by LA’s County  Court, City Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and advocates including Public Counsel and the LA Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA).  In short, if a person with a history of homelessness has undertaken 90 days of rehabilitation, has not offended in 6 months and can obtain a satisfactory report from a service provider, they can apply to have certain tickets and warrants dismissed (the program does not apply to  offences involving a victim, a weapon or possession of drugs).  Many of the challenges the Court faces are similar to Victoria’s special circumstances process: it’s administratively burdensome for social services required to provide documentation, as well as legal services assisting clients to navigate the system and  enforcement agencies assessing the applications; and the process takes a minimum of six months, which presents problems for client engagement.  These burdens have weighed down the Court required it to put a hold on new applications.  That said, the benefits delivered to people who are able to have their warrants addressed and ‘begin fresh’ is significant and seems to be an essential (if inadequate) feature of a system in which homelessness is so harshly penalised.
  4. Linking people to services isn’t a panacea – the existence of collaborative courts is premised on access to services – it’s critical that these services are in fact available and effective (which is not always the case in the current climate of funding cuts): ‘referring people to a waiting list isn’t doing them any favours’.  We feel good if we ‘connect’ people with services, but if that service isn’t genuinely available, ‘we’re wasting people’s time’.  We also need to remember that rehabilitation is tough.  It’s particularly tough when you’re sleeping on the streets, ‘it’s hard enough when you live in a mansion, just look at Hollywood’.  We also need to be mindful of ‘individualising homelessness’ and ignoring its social and economic causes e.g. a person’s substance use may contribute to their homelessness and they may be able to engage in rehabilitation to address this, but the shortage of affordable housing, lack of jobs and high levels of poverty also contribute to homelessness (in LA, ‘General Relief’ —  similar to our Newstart Allowance, which is set problematically low at $497 per fortnight — is $221 per month) and this can’t be ignored in policies designed to tackle homelessness.
  5. Discriminatory enforcement – advocates in this space recognise that we can, for example, jaywalk with little risk, but it’s almost guaranteed that if one of our clients does it, they’ll be ticketed. Public spaces should be open to rich and poor: ‘if you and I can lay down and take a nap in the park in the sun, someone who’s homeless should be able to do the same’.
  6. The role for permanent supported housing – ‘if you want clean streets and you want to stop this stuff happening in public places, provide more housing’.
  7. The power of community organising – ‘[m]ore and more homeless folks are starting to organise and that’s an important effort.  Empowering folks to make a change both in terms of policy and in their own lives makes people realise “hey these are people” and we need to create space for these voices to be heard’.
  8. Limitations of litigation – litigation addresses isolated aspects of criminalisation, but without leadership or political will it doesn’t necessarily deliver a solution.  By way of example, in Jones v City of Los Angeles the appeals court found that, for as long as there are insufficient places to sleep, the city can’t criminalise sitting, lying or sleeping on the street.  The matter was settled by agreement that the LAPD would not enforce this law between 9:00pm – 6:00am until 1250 units of affordable housing were created.  We understand that this housing target is close to being met and the return of 24 hour policing could be on the immediate horizon (despite levels of homelessness remaining at crisis level).  Another example is the recent case of Lavan v City of Los Angeles, which limited the way in which police can dispose of a person’s goods in the absence of procedural fairness.  The impact of this decision has been constrained by the increase in the number of private security officers — the ‘red shirts’ — taking part in law enforcement in LA who aren’t bound by the authority.  An even stronger example of the limitations of litigation is the alleged comment of an LA law enforcement officer in response to Jones: ‘it doesn’t change anything, we’ve still got 50 more things we can do to them’.
  9. Potential role for police in reducing homelessness and the need for leadership – in cities that have embraced a Housing First approach to chronic homelessness, the police have played a proactive, constructive role in linking people with services.  In those places, including Denver and NYC, the police have partnered with advocates, services and business in implementing programs to address homelessness.  For this to work, local political leadership is essential.  LA’s citation defence clinic is a casualty of leadership.  As part of the Safer Cities Initiative, LA introduced Homeless Alternatives to Living on the Streets (HALO), which included the citation defence clinic that allowed people to bundle up their citations and tickets and have them dealt with at once.  This existence of the program was dependent on political will and when the (elected) City Attorney changed, the program fell away.
  10. Training and understanding is critical – mental health training is needed to help officers understand when a person’s behaviour is caused by something other than defiance.  In Portland, Oregon, officers do 40 hours of mental health training.  In LA, it’s understood they do three.
  11. Stereotypes and perceptions – there is a problem with the ‘imagery’ or perception of people who are homeless.  We need to combat this with personal stories that humanise these issues and build understanding.  This is something the homelessness sector has not traditionally done very well.  We need to make space for more first person accounts; they’re powerful and compelling and have potential to gradually change attitudes and break down stereotypes.
  12. People don’t want to be confronted by homelessness – the visibility of homelessness bothers non-homeless people and informs decision-making and policies around regulation of public space.

On that note, it’s on to the nation’s capital.  Stay tuned.

LA's Homeless Court - image of Public Counsel

LA’s Homeless Court – image of Public Counsel

Skid Row Housing Trust and Inner City Law Center

Skid Row Housing Trust and Inner City Law Centre

UCLA - professional home to Professor Gary Blasi for 20 years

UCLA – professional home to Professor Gary Blasi for 20 years

A listers get As too - James Franco, UCLA graduate
A listers get As too – James Franco, UCLA graduate



  1. Gary Blasi · · Reply

    Thank you for such a concise, accurate, and nicely written account of homelessness and public spaces in Los Angeles. I look forward to looking in on what you learn elsewhere. All of us have a lot to learn across boundaries and borders. A few days after you left, I met with a delegation of officials from Salt Lake City, Utah. The only differences I heard between Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Melbourne were those of scale (and accent). Otherwise, we are seeing the same consequences of extreme poverty and disability across the globe. How we deal with those consequences and the individual human beings caught up in them will define our generation, if not our civilization.

  2. Julianne Murtagh · · Reply

    This level of non emotive access to the issues and the level of insight and clarity will be useful in helping us all make sense of the complexities that sit on all sides of these issues.

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