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Does Criminalizing the Homeless Create Criminals?

Eddie Rivera: Criminalizing the homeless through laws and policies is only creating more criminals, and is a poor use of resources that results in more costs to cities.
Criminalizing Homelessness

Does Criminalizing the Homeless Create Criminals?—Eddie Rivera

ACLU Southern California Pasadena-Foothills Chapter panel calls for policy and law changes

The act of criminalizing the homeless through laws and policies is only creating more criminals, and is a poor use of resources that results in more costs to cities, agreed a panel convened Tuesday night at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Universal Church.

The panel on homelessness, organized by the ACLU Southern California Pasadena-Foothills Chapter, featured Heather Maria Johnson of the Southern California ACLU, Anne Lansing of the Pasadena Housing Department, Natalie Komuro of Ascencia Homeless Shelter, and Eric Ares of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. The event was moderated by Michelle White of the ACLU Economic Justice Committee.

Many Southern California cities, including Pasadena, are experiencing a decrease in their homeless population, but Los Angeles County as a whole has seen a 16 percent increase from 2013 to 2015, according to a study by the Institute for Urban Initiatives. There are, at the most recent count, 632 homeless people in the city of Pasadena, down from 772 in 2013.

Criminalizing Homelessness

Panelist Anne Lansing of Pasadena Housing Services.

The cost of the national battle against the problem has been estimated by a number of sources as $2 billion a year, including policy, planning and all resources.

But, as Ares explained, “When cities enact anti-camping or anti-sleeping policies directed against the homeless, those homeless people now have tickets that they can’t pay, and arrest warrants that they can’t answer, and the cost of all of that is not an effective use of resources.”

“These laws violate civil rights and perpetuate homelessness,” added the ACLU’s Johnson. “They create criminal records and that makes it even harder for (homeless) to get housing, employment and benefits.”

Lansing explained the homelessness response and role of the Housing Department in Pasadena, saying, “Pasadena has a fairly long history of providing homeless services, and we are one of four ‘continuums of care’ in L.A. County.” She defined “continuums of care” as planning areas for the battle against homelessness, all of which are funded by the federal government. Along with Pasadena, there are Los Angeles, Glendale and Long Beach.

“For better or for worse,” she said, “we are the last resort for the homeless in this city.”

Lansing, like many in her field, advocates a “Housing First” policy. In other words, “Before employment, before drug rehabilitation, before counseling, get people off the streets.”

These days, however, with the housing market so tight, she said, “It is very challenging to find landlords who are willing to accept vouchers. In 2009 or so, when the economy was so bad, landlords loved us. These days not so much, and that’s something we are working on.”

Lansing also said that the City is currently working on various marketing programs and other ways to make the housing vouchers more attractive to landlords. But, as she noted, there is no way to make the landlords accept them.

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“But we are still moving forward, just not as quickly as before.” she added.

Her group also works with a program called FUSE, which identifies the sick homeless in hospitals and tries to move them into more permanent housing. In the first year of the program, she reported, the savings to Glendale Adventist Hospital because of the FUSE program amounted to a 98 percent reduction in treating the individuals in the program.Komuro, of the Ascencia Homeless Shelter in Atwater Village, credited their success to specifically identifying those local persons who would most benefit from their help. While she is also a proponent of “Housing First,” her group had relatively stringent requirements for providing housing, and has been able to keep a 94% housing retention rate. Those who were provided housing help stayed in their housing, she said.

“Once we move them in to a home, they heal better and are less likely to return to old street habits,” said Komuro.

Yet all of the agencies represented, along with countless other agencies across Southern California, have suffered recent funding cuts, compounding their struggles, said Komuro.

Komuro, who helped author a ten-year project for the City of Los Angeles in 2000, also said, “We need to forget about ten years. This is not a ten-year problem. This is a multi-generational problem.”

She also emphasized the fact that, despite more and more cutbacks in funding, small agencies like hers are still in a much better place to help, because of the flexibility they have.

“We can do things that bureaucracies can’t do,” she said. “We can go pick up that person and take them to a shelter or a hospital, but smaller communities can’t get any help. There is no emergency housing program in the San Gabriel Valley.”

Criminalizing Homelessness

Eric Ares of The Los Angeles Community Action Network.

The panelists also addressed the popular notion that the majority of homeless reject help or services. Said Johnson, “So many of them suffer from mental illness and abuse and drug addiction, and have been beat down for so long, that the idea of confinement in what they feel is a dangerous shelter situation can be scary.”

Komuro agreed, saying, “For many of them, who have lived on streets for decades, a home is overwhelming to them. It takes some serious adjustment.”

Finally, returning to the theme of economic justice, Ares cited a recent U.S. Justice Department ruling against anti-camping laws in Idaho, which, he said, “unfairly made it a crime to punish someone because they had nowhere else to be.” (Pasadena Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez, in the audience, also took a position against criminalizing the homeless.)

The Justice Department decision will have a sweeping impact in a host of American cities where the most recent policy has been to eliminate and destroy homeless encampments.

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Meanwhile, over 600,000 people are homeless in America each night.

Eddie Rivera
Pasadena Now