DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a recent Tuesday afternoon, an abandoned, dirty baby stroller sat at Sixth and San Julian streets, resting against a fire hydrant in the heart of Skid Row. Although the surrounding sidewalks teemed with people, many of them homeless, nobody paid attention to the stroller.
Anywhere else in Los Angeles, the stroller would have been an obvious candidate for pick up by the city's Bureau of Sanitation. But in the wake of a June federal court ruling that prohibits the seizure of homeless people's abandoned property in Skid Row, the ownership status of that stroller - and anything else left on sidewalks, from shopping carts to couches - is now in question.
In the eyes of local civil liberties groups, the ruling marked a rare victory for the voiceless. Now, homeless individuals can access a shelter for a shower or a meal without fear that police will seize their belongings when they're gone. The LAPD, meanwhile, maintains that the ruling handcuffs the city them from keeping sidewalks free from detritus that invites bacteria and provides cover for drug dealers.
Homeless advocate the Los Angeles Community Action Network, or LACAN, contends that the law does nothing to prohibit sidewalk cleaning. But authorities are proceeding cautiously.
"A broken piece of furniture could be presumed trash before, but now we have to presume it's property," said Lt. Shannon Paulson, who runs the Los Angeles Police Department's Safer Cities Initiative, a group of 50 officers assigned to Skid Row. "Even if we're going to take it as property, we have to prove it's abandoned or poses an immediate health or safety risk."
The situation began in April, when eight homeless individuals organized by LACAN filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that homeless people's constitutional rights were being violated when police took and destroyed their unattended items.
In June, U.S. District Court Judge Philip Gutierrez agreed and issued an injunction barring the city from taking abandoned property without giving potential owners the chance to claim it, or to retrieve it from another location within 90 days (items posing an immediate public health or safety concern can still be seized.) City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's office has appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, before authorities can remove a seemingly abandoned item, officers feel they need to keep a running log for several days, confirming that it remains untouched or unused, Paulson said.
"In Skid Row that's impossible," she said. "Somebody is going to come along and sit on it."
Property vs. Garbage
In Skid Row, the distinction between someone's possessions and abandoned property can be unclear. But that's no justification for city workers seizing possessions of those with so little, said Jeff Dietrich, a spokesman for the Catholic Worker of Los Angeles, which runs a soup kitchen at Sixth and Gladys streets and provides shopping carts to the homeless.
In the process of clearing sidewalks of unwanted debris, the city has also snatched up shopping carts and other vessels containing precious family photos, identification and medication belonging to the homeless, Dietrich said.
"We don't have any difficulty with the city picking up trash, with people packing up their belongings in the morning, or with enforcing drug laws," Dietrich said. "We have difficulty with police swooping down and, as people rush out and say ‘This is my property,' police claim it's abandoned and destroy it."
In the past several months, city crews have continued to clean streets, but a few sections of sidewalk have become essentially unusable for pedestrians because of the daytime encampments and other items piling up. The most cluttered sidewalks are, as a result, unavailable for thorough cleaning.
Last week, on Fifth Street near San Pedro Street, a dozen shopping carts were parked and crudely linked together by blankets and tarps. A man known by police to sell beer out of a cooler sat behind the carts, making his alleged street trade hard to see. Tucked amid the cart colony was a barbecue grill.
On San Julian Street, one eight-foot stretch of sidewalk featured a couch and a side table with a lamp, a crude living room without walls or roof. The scenario has vexed city officials, including Ninth District City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who fears that the sidewalk clutter represents a stewing public health concern.
"It's not safe and it's not healthy," Perry said.
Perry pointed to the potential for communicable disease, which would not be a new threat to Skid Row. In 2006, the area battled numerous cases of a treatment-resistant strain of staph infection, and vermin and cockroaches have thrived on these streets long before the injunction.
Daytime encampments pose other concerns. The increasingly crowded sidewalks are concentrated in areas that have long been the densest pockets of homelessness and drug activity. Drug dealers, who sometimes pose as or employ the homeless, stash narcotics among the sidewalk clutter.
The dilemma is most pronounced on San Julian Street between Fifth and Seventh streets. The stretch is home to the area's three largest missions - the Los Angeles, Union Rescue and Midnight - plus two drop-in treatment centers, and several supportive housing complexes for the formerly homeless.
Despite these havens, San Julian Street, more than any other span in the neighborhood, is a teeming vice zone. Crack smoking and public drinking are commonplace. Most people just walk in the street.
San Julian Street is one block west of the border of the Industrial District Business Improvement District, where property owners pay for street cleaning and security services beyond what the city provides. Even under Gutierrez's injunction, sidewalks in the BID zone are relatively clear.
That distinction, however, is of little solace to Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, which manages the Industrial District BID.
Lopez's group also operates a 20,000- square-foot warehouse on Seventh Street where the homeless can keep their belongings in converted recycling bins for free. In the past police took seized property there, then told street dwellers where to find it. It is regularly full.
Allowing people to keep their belongings on the sidewalk, Lopez said, may have the consequence of giving them less incentive to get off the street and into a shelter or treatment program.
"You give people a sidewalk and say you've helped this person," Lopez said. "No you haven't. Giving someone a few inches of pavement is not the answer."
City law forbids sidewalk pile-ups that obstruct the public right of way. Historically, police have asked people to move their belongings against a wall to allow at least partial pedestrian access. When those items were unattended, the city simply seized them.
Becky Dennison, co-director of LACAN, said that if authorities believe they can no longer clean sidewalks, remove trash or ask people to move their possessions so they don't obstruct public passage, "that's a complete misinterpretation of the injunction."
"The point of this was to stop people's things from being picked up in skip loaders," she said. "There's a question of whether they can pick up trash - they absolutely can pick up abandoned property. They just have to give people the opportunity to claim it."
As Trutanich's office waits for consideration of its appeal, which argues that the constitution does not allow people to use public sidewalks as storage, some area stakeholders say the focus on the current dilemma risks obscuring a more foreboding picture: Skid Row homelessness is on the rise, service providers are operating with diminished budgets and a shift in state prison policy is poised to send more felons to Skid Row.
"We've got really bad public policy right now and a really polarized community," said Molly Rysman, director of external affairs for nonprofit housing developer Skid Row Housing Trust. "We have more people going into extreme poverty, and you add in prison reform and everything else going on, and we're in bad shape."
The City Attorney's office expects to have a ruling from the Court of Appeals early next year. In the meantime, some Skid Row residents are anxious for an immediate salvo that will cut back on the sidewalk pile-ups, said "General" Jeff Page, who represents Skid Row on the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council.
"Everybody's sitting here complaining, but who's doing something about it?" Page said.
"When there was the accident at Art Walk there was an outcry," he said, referring to a July traffic incident that resulted in an infant's death. "They rushed to make a task force and they came up with instant solutions within 30 days. The injunction happened four months ago. Where are the solutions?"
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Skid Row's Perfect Storm
Five years after the launch of the Safer Cities Initiative, Skid Row has seen reductions in crime, homelessness and nonviolent street deaths. By most measures, the community is cleaner and safer, with more housing. Today, that progress is in jeopardy. In a three-part series, Los Angeles Downtown News looks at the state of Skid Row as it faces a new set of challenges.
Part I: A prisoner realignment program has some fearing that more drug offenders and felons will wind up on the street.
Part II: A recent court order that prohibits the seizure of homeless peoples' property on Skid Row sidewalks has had other consequences.
Part III: In April 2010, the City Attorney tried a new tactic to combat the Skid Row drug trade. As police begin to enforce it, the drug game is alive and well.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2011