From The Michael Slate Show

Interview With Lawyers on the Los Angeles Homeless Crisis

Tens of Thousands Sleeping in the Streets of LA and Under Siege

August 3, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Gary Blasi, Professor of Law Emeritius at UCLA, and Peter Schey, President and Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, were interviewed July 17, 2015, on The Michael Slate Show on KPFK Pacifica radio. This is a rush transcript of that interview.

Michael Slate: Joining us now to talk about the assault on the homeless in Los Angeles today is Gary Blasi, Professor of Law Emeritius at UCLA. He’s been an advocate and researcher on homeless issues in LA since 1983. And Peter Schey, who is the President and Executive Director of the Center for Rights and Constitutional Law. He’s been the director of that since 1980. Gary and Peter, welcome to the show. Let’s jump into this because I want to get as much done—I had a list of about 25 questions for you, OK. So Gary, revisions to the city’s municipal code that make it easier to seize and destroy the belongings of homeless people; there’s been a whole lot of talk about that happening and it’s impending. You’ve described these new laws as being draconian. What’s going on with this now and what do you mean by draconian?

Gary Blasi: Well, this was—if you just read them—which I sometimes wonder whether either if the city attorney or the city council members who voted 12 to one for them, are pretty astonishing. They say that unless you can carry everything you have on your back and the police cite you for having something on public property either the sidewalk or a park and they see your stuff on public property, anywhere in the city 24 hours later, then they can seize everything that can fit in a 60-gallon garbage can and everything else they can destroy.

Michael Slate: You’re saying that it doesn’t matter whether you’re there or you’re not there, if you’re standing right next to your stuff, they can still come over and just haul it away―and tough luck.

Gary Blasi: They can just take it away and there will be police officers and presumably other city employees driving trucks for the herding away of people’s property, but yeah, it won’t matter if you are there or not. It won’t matter whether you move it across the street or across town. If it’s still in the city of Los Angeles and it’s on public property it’s subject to seizure. Your only options are to either levitate yourself off the surface of the earth or move to another city or just keep walking.

Michael Slate: Yeah, that’s incredible. So draconian man, and it can’t be a force and intimidation when you think about in the way that it’s happening. It’s heavy and just so people know, you’re talking about—what’s the area of Los Angeles like 486 square miles, something like that?

Gary Blasi: Yeah, LA City is about 486 square miles. LA County is a little over 4,000.

Michael Slate: OK, this is phenomenal. Nowhere in the city can they go where their stuff will then be safe. Now, there were other laws that were thrown in there―two other parts of this bill. Where do they stand now, where people could be charged with a misdemeanor in relation to their goods being seized? Is that still on the books?

Gary Blasi: Yeah, the law actually takes legal effect on July 18, [2015].

Michael Slate: Tomorrow.

Gary Blasi: Tomorrow—exactly, and as of tomorrow everything I just described will constitute a misdemeanor and subject you to $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail in addition to the loss of all of your property. So, that part of the law―literal criminalization is still there. Even if the misdemeanor penalties are removed, it works out to be roughly the same thing, because what they’re talking about now may be true [inaudible] to remove the misdemeanor penalty but still allow the police to write a citation. Of course, if you’re homeless or even just extremely poor, you get a citation and these are for upwards of up to $170. You don’t pay it, you’re still subject to arrest for the warrant issued when you didn’t pay the citation. So, either it’s a direct trip to jail or a more circuitous route to jail—but it’s criminalization either way.

Michael Slate: Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Schey: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Michael Slate: Peter, you work a lot with immigrants on skid row and I imagine with people in general, but a lot with immigrants. Can you give us a sense the overall numbers of people on skid row?

Peter Schey: Yeah, it’s very large. Currently, the shelter shortfall in Los Angeles is anticipated to be approximately 70 percent, and upwards of 70 [inaudible] and predicted to be about 52 percent. So that means that in this year roughly, 70 percent of people who need housing or are going to find housing―the numbers—the actual hard numbers are difficult to pin down. Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority puts the number at approximately 45,000 homeless in Los Angeles County. Other private groups have put it at closer to 85,000. Obviously, what we see here is basically, is the social imprisonment of a Third World population of largely people of color. Lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles seems to have a disparate racial impact, which we think is in violation of the United States’ obligations under the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

A large part of that population consists of immigrants; both of very large numbers of unaccompanied minors and other recently arrived immigrant families. There’s no doubt that they will suffer enormously as a result of this new policy, not only in the sense that their property will be seized and will be put in some downtown location that many, many of these homeless folks couldn’t reach. They wouldn’t know where it is. They wouldn’t have the funds to take a bus to get there, and this facility tends to keep bankers’ hours. So, once that property is seized, it’s pretty much gone for those people. There will also be a collateral impact on immigration status in the sense that when people are cited, people are arrested, it [information] tends to go into databases [which] the federal authorities have access to those bases. If and when some of these folks are eligible to apply to legalize their status, thery’re going to run into obstacles and they can be denied legalization of status if it appears that they’re likely to become a public charge in the future. If somebody has several of these citations or arrests or jail sentences on their records and that appears in federal databases, which it will, that creates an obstacle to many of these people to ultimately legalizing their status. So, there are multiple problems with the sort of enforcement approach that Los Angeles is taking, rather than creating what cities like New York and other cities have done, which was in essence create a right to shelter for every man, woman, and child, to address this problem.

Michael Slate: Now Peter, one question around this in relation to immigrants: Is there a large immigrant population of homeless? I’m curious about that because you tend to see in neighborhoods where there are a lot of immigrants there, generally, you tend to see a number of people who are living on the streets, and I don’t know if that’s also true on skid row―that there’s a large immigrant population on skid row , but how big is this question of homelessness among the immigrant population?

Peter Schey: It’s very significant and it’s increasing as a result of the failure of the federal government―the Obama administration and the Congress—to seriously grapple with the question of comprehensive immigration reform, and so what we see as we have economic dis-relocation in Mexico and Central America. We have the aftermath of the wars that the U.S. basically conducted in Central America. We have deportation of alleged members and increasing gang violence in Central America, coffee crop failures, all resulting in families coming to the United States unaccompanied, with no path to citizenship without employment authorization. If they’re lucky enough to be working at all... working in highly exploitable jobs at minimum wage or less than minimum wage and a person in Los Angeles working at minimum wage, it is well known, cannot even afford a one bedroom apartment. So, I would say that probably 30 percent of the population of homeless people in Los Angeles is made up of immigrants. They’re largely ineligible for government-funded social services. Many of them—I was dealing with a young man yesterday—he used to reside at homeless shelter that we operate. He’s unable to even get a bed to sleep in because he does not have a photo identification. So, there are any number of problems... the homeless and those tend to be doubled. Those tend to be doubled and tripled when it comes to immigrant members of the community who are homeless.

Michael Slate: Gary, let me ask you this. A number of years back, and maybe it was the first year that I started doing this show, there were all these nighttime raids being pulled on homeless people, especially on skid row. They were really vicious. As I interviewed people, they were telling me about being savagely beaten in the night, feeling a club coming down on their tent and then coming out and being clubbed down. It scared the hell out of them, basically. It was really meant to be this campaign of force and intimidation that you’ve referred to earlier in terms of thinking of this draconian law. It reminded me then of the kind of things I saw when I was in South Africa, when squatter camps were being broken up [by] the apartheid police force there. Is that sort of something... the direction where things are heading in now?

Gary Blasi: Well, they’ve been not only heading there, they’ve been there for some time. The really heavy militarization of police on skid row began in 2006, as a project of Mayor Villaraigosa, who promised police and services, and delivered police in huge quantities but no services. Raising South Africa makes it imperative that I mention one fact that’s been not very well portrayed in the media or discussed anywhere. In the two years between 2013 and 2015, the percentage of overall homeless people rose 12% percent, but for African-Americans, 35 percent. For whites, it went down 30 percent. It’s now the case that one out of every 22 African-American people in the city of Los Angeles is homeless. Compared to the rest of the population; that number is one out of 254. So, there’s an intense racial dynamic. I agree with Peter about the overlay of the oppression of the immigration system, but you can’t really walk down any street on skid row, and not be struck by how much of those look like parts of the third world, where it’s not only economic oppression but racial oppression.

Michael Slate: One of the things I was reading as I was preparing for this discussion, there was a point―and I can’t remember where I ran across it—but there was a point where the police started referring to the people who are approved for housing but none are available and they talked about the impact of gentrification. Then they turned around and they said, “Well, actually these people are 'service-resistant' people." What the hell does that mean?

Gary Blasi: That’s an invention of people who deliver bad services. If someone refuses a shelter or service that anyone, you or I, would accept, that’s pretty good indication that it’s a real thing, but many of the services have so many rules and so many practical problems for homeless people that [there] is actually a rational reason to stay on the street. I have only encountered one person in 35 years of working on this who persistently has refused actual housing. The rates of acceptance in lots of experiments... unfortunately at the level of the size of the experiments have shown that if you offer people actual housing, meaning even only just a room with a door with a key, 100 percent of them will take that. That was the county’s experience with their Project 50. So, “service-resistant” is a way of blaming the victim, which we do a lot of in this area.

Michael Slate: Now, Peter, one of the things I wanted to ask you: there was a 2007 court settlement... the city says it’s constructed enough housing to actually legally resume its campaign to drive the homeless from the streets. Apparently, back in 2007 they were told they couldn’t drive the homeless from the streets because they didn’t have the housing to put them in. Now they say that they do have it and so they’ll be able to resume their campaign. They’re well on their way to having it. Then that allows them to resume the campaign to actually carry out this intimidation and terror.

Peter Schey: Yeah, I think that that’s very misleading. I think that in 2014, the chief officer of Los Angeles estimated that something like $87-100 million was spent on homelessness in Los Angeles, but when you drill down on those numbers, it turns out that approximately nine out of 10 dollars went to law enforcement. So, it’s really going to the militarization of the problem rather than to solving the problem. What we increasingly see is a privatization of public space and the subsidization of new exclusive enclaves that are often called “urban villages”. These are driving more and more people, including mostly families of color—low income families, immigrant families―into homelessness. Numbers are increasing all of the time.

Options for these folks decreasing all of the time. The response of the City of Los Angeles is largely being a law enforcement response. Los Angeles has as a matter deliberate policy, has fewer public lavatories than any other major North American city. They have bulldozed most of the public toilets on skid row. The police, lobbied by downtown merchants and developers, have broken up as we know... they’ve broken up almost every attempt by the homeless and their allies, to create safe havens with self-governed encampments. We [inaudible] not that long ago where just as real [inaudible] homeless activists [inaudible] was roughly dispersed. So, that’s the problem that we face. It’s a problem with both the city council and a mayor’s office that are unwilling to deal with the problem by providing anything close to the amount of temporary housing that’s needed. Instead of pursuing this militarization approach, I think LA City and the County should enact and should implement a “right to shelter” mandate. That insures temporary emergency shelter to every man, woman, and child every night. This is a fundamental human right that has been ignored. The problem, obviously, is linked to the poverty and those issues have likewise, been ignored at a federal level, a county level and the city.

Michael Slate: Gary, we have about a minute left. You want to add anything to this?

Gary Blasi: Well, a couple of things. One, is the level of the city’s commitment to actually help homeless people works out to one penny per day per resident of the city of Los Angeles; that’s the level of commitment. Frankly, if you go to city council meetings other than some fantastic community organization like the Community Action Network, you don’t hear enough opposition from ordinary citizens. You see the lobbyists or the developers and the yuppies and the hipsters complaining about homeless people, but you don’t hear very much from the broader community of progressives ,and I hope that will change.

Michael Slate: Alright. Gary Blasi, thank you very much.

Gary Blasi: Thank you.

Michael Slate: OK, Peter Schey, thank you very much.

Peter Schey: Thank you very much for having me.

Michael Slate: Definitely. Talk to you guys again.


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