DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On June 23, U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez issued a ruling in a case involving a lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of homeless individuals. Two months later, the impact of his decision is clear: Skid Row sidewalks have been legally converted into scenes we'd imagine in some third world country, not blocks from our own City Hall.
LAPD and Department of Public Works crews are now prohibited from removing abandoned items from Skid Row sidewalks. Attorneys for eight plaintiffs successfully argued that items such as medicines, clothing and personal papers were confiscated and destroyed after the individuals left them unattended for mere minutes while showering at a mission or using a public bathroom. It's difficult to imagine police actually having so little to do as to lie in wait to take items left for a few moments on a sidewalk, but the ruling has been made.
It's the consequence of that ruling that neither the attorneys nor Gutierrez have to live with. We do. Right now, portions of sidewalks along Sixth Street, San Julian Street and elsewhere in Skid Row are impassable due to filthy mattresses, moldy food and items covered in urine, feces, flies and even maggots. The vulnerable physically and mentally ill, many of whom are unable to care for themselves, much less the possessions they hoard as means of protection or trade, have interpreted the ruling to mean the use of the public sidewalks for the personal storage of these items is now lawful.
I work in Skid Row and live Downtown. I see the impact of this ruling and it sickens me, especially when there is another solution, one that isn't as costly as housing or as difficult to site.
Since 2002, hundreds of Skid Row homeless individuals have been storing important personal possessions at the Central City East Association's (CCEA, where I serve as executive director) Check-in Center/Personal Property Warehouse on East Seventh Street. The facility currently stores the possessions of more than 600 homeless families and individuals - free of charge, seven days a week. Through private donations, the number of storage bins has been increased twice in recent years to meet growing demand. The reality is that a private sector-driven solution is working: Not only has the Check-In Center won numerous awards, but also, far more importantly, it has been heavily utilized by the community - precisely because it is a secure and orderly environment.
The annual operating expenses of the center are nearly $120,000. A local property owner donates the warehouse space and, since 2006, CCEA's cost to expand the center has been balanced with financial assistance from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
The human tragedy in Skid Row is immeasurable. The narcotics brought in by people from outside the area are a profitable business. With a target-rich population lying on or wandering aimlessly through the streets, often self-medicating themselves into oblivion, the drug pushers significantly outnumber police and social service outreach workers. And now these streets are covered with refuse and debris that often hide weapons or drugs, but mostly pose a public health hazard, all in the name of compassion.
What few talk about are the thousands of working poor and disabled people living in Skid Row, who struggle but succeed in paying the area's modest rents. These individuals and families with children are prisoners in their own homes because of unsafe conditions in the public right-of-way.
CCEA respectfully questions the fairness of Gutierrez's ruling. Has he considered the rights of the neighborhood's businesses and poor-yet-housed residents? His ruling does not apply to the City of Los Angeles as a whole. Rather, it singles out one community that now must allow conditions that would never be tolerated in other areas of the city.
CCEA knows well that this is a complex issue. On the subject of unattended personal property - as with many other issues - we call for equity and balance. Let us not forget, however, that the sidewalk is the public's right of way and that it should not be traded in exchange for a conscience. We must help the thousands of homeless people throughout Los Angeles who need a home, not merely give them a few inches of pavement and call it a day.
Estela Lopez is the executive director of the Central City East Association.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.