Why don’t Sheriff’s deputies just arrest the homeless people lying on West Hollywood’s sidewalks or sleeping in the parks? And is the City of West Hollywood really doing anything to address the homeless situation?
Those who attended the community forum on homelessness hosted last week by City Councilmember Lauren Meister got some answers to those questions, answers that I found useful and illuminating and that inspired me to do more research to share with WEHOville’s readers. Meister, by the way, is a member of the City Council’s homelessness subcommittee along with Mayor John Heilman.
What impressed me most was the way our local Sheriff’s Station weaves together a practical application of the law with resources that address the mental illness and drug abuse affecting so many homeless people. It tops that off with a commitment, stated by station Capt. Sergio Aloma, to treat the homeless like human beings (which they are). I also was impressed that most of those residents who spoke up about the issue also saw the homeless as people, although one resident, to my dismay, seemed to focus her concern on their impact on property values — an attitude I’d like to think is more reflective of Beverly Hills than West Hollywood.
First, some answers to common questions:
Why don’t deputies arrest the homeless and haul away them and the belongings they have stashed on the sidewalk or in shopping carts?
Capt. Aloma explained that taking a homeless person to the Sheriff’s station to book him on a misdemeanor charge for laying on the sidewalk is a waste of law enforcement resources and accomplishes nothing. That’s because the person arrested must be released after being booked (unless he lacks any identification). That means the homeless person is back on the street (or sidewalk), while a Sheriff’s deputy is stuck at a desk, spending lots of time filling out the required forms associated with arrests. (That said, deputies will ask a homeless person blocking a sidewalk or obstructing the entrance to a business to get up and move).
As I dug into this, I learned that dealing with the homeless on the streets is complicated by the 2006 decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, where the U.S. 9th District Circuit Court ruled that it’s cruel and unusual to punish people for sitting, sleeping or lying on public sidewalks at night. In its settlement of the case, Los Angeles agreed to permit sleeping on sidewalks from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until more housing for the homeless could be built. That law doesn’t apply to the City of West Hollywood, but it suggests that a federal court might not look kindly on WeHo’s implementation of an aggressive sweep of its sidewalks at all hours.
The district court’s decision rested in part on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
So what about taking away the shopping carts and trash bags that a homeless person has with him or has left on the sidewalk? Capt. Aloma noted that a number of cities, including Los Angeles, have been sued successfully for carting away the belongings of homeless people. In 2012, the 9th District Circuit Court ruled in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles that it is a violation of both the 4th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution to seize and destroy the personal possessions of homeless people that are left on sidewalks while they do things like shower or get food. If law enforcement officers take such belongings, they now must store them for up to 90 days so that the homeless people who own them can retrieve them.
How does the 4th Amendment apply to that? Well, it states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
And what if that person is shouting or dancing on the street or otherwise appears to be mentally erratic? Can’t he be taken to a hospital and treated for mental illness? A state law commonly referred to as “fifty-one fifty” (aka California Welfare & Institutions Code section 5150) says “yes.” But only if the person is picked up “as a result of a mental health disorder, is a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled” and the diagnosis of mental illness is signed by a specifically designated county clinician. Screaming on a street corner (which also isn’t uncommon among the nightlife crowd on a Saturday night) usually isn’t evidence of a dangerous mental health disorder, which in and of itself is hard to prove.
Yes, it’s all quite complicated, and as Aloma noted, there are no restrictions on homeless people walking into West Hollywood from other parts of Los Angeles County. Some WeHo residents grumble that we have more homeless on our streets than does Beverly Hills. While that wasn’t raised at last week’s meeting, I imagine our acceptance of LGBT people may be one reason why. An analysis of data from the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority’s annual homelessness survey found that in West Hollywood homeless people are five times more likely to identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual than are homeless people across the rest of the county, and the percentage of those who are transgender women is almost 20 times the countywide percentage.
So what are the solutions? Well, just providing housing isn’t enough. As Meister has noted in an op-ed published by WEHOville: “For many of the homeless people in WeHo, permanent housing is not necessarily the first step – and that’s primarily because functioning in a traditional housing environment can be a challenge. Among our homeless, we have a fair amount of those who suffer from mental illness, others with substance abuse issues, or both. A living situation is needed that can provide or cope with all of the above.”
And then there’s the issue of convincing homeless people to accept help.
As part of its “Homeless Initiative,” West Hollywood has created outreach teams that include Sheriff’s deputies and people who can help address mental health and substance abuse issues. A major move, announced at last week’s meeting, is the decision by Capt. Aloma to invite the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Mental Evaluation Team to house some of its staff members at the West Hollywood Station. That makes it easier for Sheriff’s deputies to effectively respond to an issue involving a homeless person who apparently is mentally ill.
The Sheriff’s Station is working with the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST) headed by Lt. Geoffrey Deedrick, which has grown from a two-person operation to include eight deputies and one sergeant in addition to Deedrick, who attended last week’s community meeting.
Deedrick and Corri Planck, the city’s Homeless Initiative project manager, talked at last week’s meeting about the importance of patience and persistence. As the city has noted before, offers of shelter, food and assistance sometimes are turned down because the homeless person is able to get cash or food on the street. Deedrick and Planck noted that some with mental illness or drug abuse issues can’t be easily convinced to take advantage of services that will find them shelter.
Deedrick cited examples where he has sat down across from a homeless person on many occasions to chat, slowly getting to know the person and build trust. He carries a bucket to sit on, he explained, which puts him on the same level as the person he is talking to rather than towering above him. Then he relaxes and starts chewing tobacco as he talks. It’s all about engaging with the person, Deedrick said, which can take many encounters. Eventually, he told the audience, there are homeless people who see him on the street and call him out by name. Eventually, he can convince some of them to take advantage of the help they need.
The city is doing more, as has been noted in previous stories. It has three key departments — Human Services & Rent Stabilization, Public Safety and Economic Development — that address and respond to homelessness, along with various contract providers, ranging from the Sheriff’s station to Ascencia (which provides beds), Step Up on Second (which provides mental health and addiction recovery services) the Los Angeles LGBT Center (which operates an overnight shelter for homeless young people), the West Hollywood Library (which houses a city pilot program that provides outreach and services to homeless people) and the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (which has brought together local business owners to develop creative ideas for dealing with the issue).
The city also will soon be installing a version of parking meters (they will be colored purple) that will accept donations to help the homeless. These meters are designed to raise the awareness among local residents of the homeless issue and also remind them that it’s smarter to donate money to a homeless charity than directly to a homeless person who might use it for cigarettes, drugs or alcohol. And an app is under development that residents can use to alert the city or law enforcement when they see a problem with a homeless person on the street. Meanwhile, you can still dial the “Concern Line” — (323) 848-6590 —to share your concerns about people experiencing homelessness in West Hollywood. Messages left on the Concern Line will be followed up on by city staff, contracted social services providers or law enforcement.
If you have specific questions about what the city and the Sheriff’s station are doing (or aren’t doing) to deal with the homeless situation, please post them here. I’ll do my best to get answers. Meanwhile, the video below gives a good look at the approach the Sheriff’s Department’s Homeless Outreach Services team takes when dealing with homeless people.