“Criminalizing the act of being homeless in most of LA” – Statement from DSA-LA on Revision of Municipal Code 41.18

Drafted by DSA-LA Housing and Homelessness Committee

On July 28th, the LA City Council voted to further criminalize the act of being homeless in most of the City of Los Angeles. The DSA-LA Housing and Homelesness Committee unequivocally condemns this action, and demands that the LA City Council immediately reverse the motion, and truly begin a humane housing-first approach to our City’s most vulnerable living on the streets without shelter.

While local Elected Officials and the Sheriff of Los Angeles continue to make claims that unhoused folks are being offered housing in good faith, it’s been made clear there are not nearly enough beds available to house the over 50,000 fellow Angelenos currently facing housing in-security in the City of Los Angeles. Further, federal CDC guidelines continue to stipulate that sweeps of encampments have significant risks of spreading COVID and greatly put those who are unhoused at-risk of contracting COVID. 

Poverty is not a crime, and until housing becomes a human right and accessible to all we will oppose all measures to criminalize being unhoused in public spaces. For these reasons, we also echo the sentiments of the #ServicesNotSweeps Coalition and dozens of local civil rights and housing groups in opposing 41.18:

We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, are requesting that you oppose any legislation that allows the city to ban sitting, sleeping, and lying: within 500 feet of freeways, ramps, and tunnels; within 500 feet of any facility opened after January 2018 that provides housing, shelter, services, safe parking, or storage to unhoused people; or that criminalizes storage of property in the areas listed above. We also request that you oppose legislation that has the potential to criminalize an unhoused Angeleno if they refuse an offer of shelter by city employees.

The proposed legislation would make it illegal to be unhoused in a significant portion of Los Angeles City. This interactive map of comprehensive enforcement restrictions demonstrates the implications of overlapping enforcements, including previously proposed 41.18 legislation. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) data, this could impact thousands of unsheltered individuals living in Los Angeles. It would also make it illegal to refuse an offer of shelter by the city in public spaces citywide. Additionally under the proposed rules from the City Attorney, unhoused residents can be sentenced to six months in prison for simply having property in public spaces.

Public officials have stated over and over again that there are not enough available beds to support Los Angeles’ unhoused populations. LAHSA’s most recent Housing Inventory Count estimated that there were 15,000 shelter or bridge beds available across the Continuum of Care. Even if all of these beds were open, they would only provide space for a fraction of the people living unsheltered in the city. Further, even if there were sufficient beds, public officials, most notably LAHSA, consistently state that inflow into homelessness is far greater and faster than what our homelessness service system can support. Proposals like these promote the myth that people are homeless by choice, not the result of a failure to expand the city’s homeless housing stock (both shelters and permanent). Given this scarcity, prioritizing enforcement will do little more than move people from place to place, disrupting their lives along the way.

The focus of this legislation is to criminalize homelessness, a strategy that wastes millions of city dollars while accomplishing very little. Legal scholars have argued that these ordinances constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate basic human rights. Jones v. City of Los Angeles ruled that enforcing the bans on sitting and sleeping in public violate the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. Despite these rulings, Los Angeles has continued to lead with criminalization in its response to the homelessness crisis. This is actively counterproductive toward reducing homelessness.
    • Citations, arrests, and fees are impediments to obtaining employment, housing, and other needed resources.
    • Displacing people can disrupt relationships with homeless outreach and caseworkers, who are necessary to enter into stable housing and services.
    • Encampment sweeps by police and sanitation workers result in the loss of important possessions: documents, items of personal value, even medication.
    • When documents are confiscated, people applying for housing and other services are set back—ID cards and certain forms are often needed to obtain assistance.
    • When medications are confiscated or thrown out by police, the consequences can be fatal.
As of September 21, coroner data shows that 964 unhoused Angelenos have died this year.
    • Unhoused deaths represent 11% of all deaths in LA, despite representing 1% of the overall population.
    • Unhoused deaths were almost twice as likely to be male and 1.6 times more likely to be black.
    • Unhoused people were over two times more likely to have died from accidental and preventable causes compared to housed populations.
The Centers for Disease Control states “clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” Increased enforcement creates another threat to unhoused Angelenos at a time when the city is already expected to surpass the number of unhoused deaths of the previous year and set a record for the City with the highest homeless mortality rate. City Council is approaching enforcement with urgency, even as housing projects face delays and higher-than-expected costs. We cannot prioritize building systems to force people into shelter when there is nowhere for them to go. For the above reasons, we urge you to oppose the passage of Council file: 20-1376.”

In one of his last acts as mayor, Mayor Garcetti signed 41.18 into law on July 29, 2021. We condemn this decision as one that will lead to more deaths, greater incarceration, and untold amounts of harassment and abuse. The City of LA must reverse course in the way that it treats its unhoused community. Punishing, harassing, and hiding people experiencing homelessness will not fix our broken housing system.