While poverty remains at Great Recession levels, Philadelphia has banned food lines; North Carolina’s state government has asked religious groups to stop feeding the hungry; Tampa banned panhandling and sleeping in parks or on sidewalks; Arizona banned begging for money or food, which was later overturned by a federal judge; and a state representative from Hawaii began literally smashing the possessions of homeless people with a sledgehammer.
With reports of homelessness increasing across the country, the gut reaction of many U.S. cities and states is not to come to the aid of their un-housed, but instead to persecute them.
Los Angeles is no different. Though homeless advocates in LA have been busy promoting a Homeless Bill of Rights and defending food lines, the city remains very much a part of this trend.
City council members have repeatedly frustrated organizers of food lines by using health and safety codes or aggressive policing. Recently, LA’s homeless were threatened with the possibility of a ban on food lines at the behest of businesses. The possibility of a ban was met with widespread condemnation, garnering negative media attention and protests. So far city council members have quietly backed off on their proposal, however, whether or not they have abandoned it remains to be seen.
But perhaps no other case highlights the plight of the homeless in America than the police killing of Kelly Thomas, a mentally-ill, homeless man. While begging for aid and mercy, Thomas was beaten unconscious and beyond recognition by several members of the Fullerton Police Dept. Thomas died five days later; three of the officers stood trial for murder. Though the entire killing was caught on video and audio recorders, two of the officers were found not guilty. Charges were dropped on the third officer as a result of the others’ acquittal.
Seeing that state and local governments are writing laws that deny homeless people access to food or public spaces, coupled with Fullerton’s precedent that cops can literally beat to death a homeless person and be found innocent of any wrongdoing, even of violating police procedures, some wonder what rights, if any, do homeless people have left.
“[The Kelly Thomas] case comes out at a time that is really, really becoming a sad state of affairs for homeless people in the U.S.,” said Mel Tillekeratne, an organizer for the Monday Night Mission food line in Los Angeles.
The Monday Night Mission, which feeds about 300 to 400 homeless on Skid Row five nights a week, recently organized a large demonstration in Hollywood against the possible ban on food lines in LA. The protest is viewed as being instrumental in getting city council to back down.
Part of the problem, says Tillekeratne, is most people don’t understand what it is like to be homeless. He said this disconnection leads to negative biases.
“The vast majority of people in LA are not aware of what goes on in Skid Row,” he said. “Not just Skid Row, but homelessness in general; they are not aware of the conditions. I have lived here for 11 years. Not until I ran through Skid Row, did I know how bad it was.”
Many have compared LA’s Skid Row to a Third World slum, or worse. Tents appear every night in Skid Row that line entire city blocks. Daily police remind throngs of homeless people that they are not allowed to sit, sleep or lie down on the sidewalks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. But police are not always the source of complaints or application of codes, and neither are private security who are paid for by business improvement districts. It was a restaurant manager, via the bouncer, who called police, said Tillekeratne, and reported that Thomas was allegedly “breaking into cars.”
“Unfortunately, people see the homeless community as being criminal,” he said.
Crime was one of the stated reasons for businesses and residents in Hollywood to petition against a food line that has existed in the same location for over 20 years. But according to the Park La Brea News-Beverly Press, Capt. Peter Zarcone of the LAPD’s Hollywood Division said the food line and the homeless were not a source for serious crime.
“It’s not a huge crime issue, but of course, every time you have a large group of homeless people, there could be elements within that group that could contribute to crime, but there has not been an increase,” he said. “There has not been a significant crime problem as a result.”
According to the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a group that is currently campaigning for California to adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights, the majority of “lawlessness” committed by homeless people has to do with violating city ordinances that prohibit sleeping, sitting, lying down or loitering in public spaces. WRAP has compared these laws to the anti-Oakie, Ugly or Jim Crow laws of the past. Bilal Ali, a statewide organizer for WRAP, said such laws targeting the homeless are discriminatory and a direct attack on their right to exist.
“Laws are made against them and that exacerbates their already dire conditions,” he said. “The homeless and poor people need a bill that guarantees their right to exist and protects them against these draconian measures.”
At a recent demonstration in Venice to promote the Homeless Bill of Rights, homeless people complained of their treatment because of curfews and codes, but they also pointed to citizens who sometimes bring the law upon them. Juan Alcala, a homeless man best known for his role as class-clown and part-time philosopher at the 2011 Occupy LA encampment, said the public’s negative attitude toward homeless people makes it easy for others to discriminate against them.
“It’s total bullshit,” he said. “Anybody can make up a story and send the homeless to jail. We have no rights. And that’s being done by restaurant owners and by people who think they own the [Venice] boardwalk.”
If passed, advocates believe the Homeless Bill of Rights would protect homeless people from, not just police or private security, but from a public that tends to equate homelessness with crime and lost business revenue. The bill would ensure the right of any person to move freely, rest, sleep or pray in a public space; occupy a legally parked vehicle; to serve food or eat in public; to legal counsel for infractions; to existing 24-hour hygiene facilities and be considered for necessity defense by judges. Currently, three states have such bills of rights: Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois.
The Monday Night Mission is planning another demonstration, called “5,000 Angelinos for Kelly Thomas,” in Hollywood for Feb. 8. The plan, said Tillekeratne, is to raise awareness of the Thomas case and to demand police begin training their officers on dealing with the mentally ill where no training existed before or to enhance already existing practices.
“We want to put it back in the limelight that Kelly Thomas needs justice, that there are three murderers walking the streets of Fullerton right now,” he said. “The second thing we want to bring to light is how the mentally ill are treated when police respond, because Fullerton doesn’t have any kind of special response teams. They don’t have any special training when dealing with mentally ill people.”
“We don’t want to demonize the LAPD or any law enforcement agency,” he said. “We just want to send a message that says, ‘Hey, these are our people you are harassing on the streets. Pay attention. These are human beings. They deserve respect and their rights as any other human being.’”
Photos: Dan Bluemel