The city of Los Angeles, as a public entity, should not be allowed to prevent unhoused disabled people from sitting, sleeping or lying down in public.
A recent article in the LA Times estimates there were over 58,936 unhoused people living in Los Angeles, and among them an unknown and likely ever-fluctuating number of disabled unhoused people, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 41,557 out of 151,278 unhoused people in California experience “chronic homelessness.” The National Alliance to End Homelessness defines people experiencing chronic homelessness as individuals who “are disabled and have experienced long-term and/or repeated episodes of homelessness.”
Given the prevalence of disability among unhoused people, accessibility and municipal codes regarding sitting, standing and lying down are of particular interest, as the city of Los Angeles is required to provide equal access to participation in activities and services. The ADA cites that public entities that are providing a service cannot discriminate against disabled people, stating: “A public entity may not deny a qualified individual with a disability the opportunity to participate in services, programs or activities that are not separate or different, despite the existence of permissibly separate or different programs or activities.”
A public service that is often overlooked by able-bodied people, however, is the service of rest: People need to be able to sit, lie and take care of their bodies. The criminalization of sitting, standing and parking in Los Angeles is an inaccessible and ableist policy that specifically harms unhoused disabled people, and by creating a public space that is inaccessible, the city of Los Angeles municipal code section 41.18(d) constitutes a violation of Americans with Disabilities Act. The code states, “No person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way,” clearly criminalizing activities that unhoused people participate in, in public, out of sheer necessity, and this criminalization also takes advantage of the fact that not everyone has a place to rest that is not in public.
Whereas housed people and able-bodied people are often able to be out in public with no immediate need to rest or stay somewhere in the public, unhoused and disabled people bear the brunt of the criminalization of sitting and lying down in Los Angeles. Able-bodied people who do not need a place to sit or lie down do not have to think about whether or not they will have a space to legally rest, and housed people similarly have a place where they can safely sit, lay and sleep.
Unhoused and disabled people, however, do not have the luxury of being able to go to a safe home when they need to rest. Additionally, having to travel around to find a location to rest or sleep because some locations are deemed unsuitable for rest by the city creates added obstacles to safety and comfort, especially for a population that may not have the means to use forms of transportation other than walking.
Disabled and unhoused people and able-bodied, housed people need to participate in the same activities in order to survive: All people need a place to sleep, a place to sit and a place to rest, and though these places may be different (like a private home vs. a public space), everyone has the right to participate in these activities nonetheless. By preventing disabled and unhoused people from sitting, sleeping and lying on “any street, sidewalk, or other public way,” the city of Los Angeles municipal code section 41.18 violates the ADA, as it criminalizes unhoused disabled people’s participation in public activities, like simply sitting down.