Commentary: Homeless Sweeps Ignore the Underlying Problem Generating Homelessness in California

Photo by Fredrick Lee on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

The LA Times notes that rulings from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have made it more difficult for California to clear homeless camps.

“In cities such as Washington and much of the rest of the nation, officials are relatively free to enforce local laws to remove homeless encampments,” the Times writes.  “But thanks to a series of rulings by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, public officials in California and eight other Western states face greater scrutiny and legal challenges when they move to clear encampments or relocate homeless people.”

The appellate decisions establish new rights for homeless people who need to be able to have a place to sleep.  It limits the ability of police to relocate or remove them.

But the Times notes that “no other federal appellate court has followed the 9th Circuit’s legal reasoning and now the decisions are being challenged in the Supreme Court, which could take up the issue early next year.”

The first 9th Circuit ruling came in 2006,the Times explains, as “judges struck down a Los Angeles sidewalk ordinance and ruled that homeless persons could not be arrested solely because they ‘lie or sleep’ on the streets.”

What’s most interesting is, “Rather than appeal to the Supreme Court, the city settled the case and agreed not to enforce its ordinance during overnight hours.”

Five years ago, “the appeals court ruled it was ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ forbidden under the 8th Amendment to arrest or fine people who were sleeping on the street in Boise, Idaho, because they had nowhere else to go.”

The Times explains, “Together the rulings have created two different legal standards for dealing with homeless people and homeless encampments in this country.”

“Most local governments throughout the country can remove encampments that are blocking sidewalks and the right of way,” said Amanda Karras, general counsel of the International Municipal Lawyers Assn. But on the West Coast, the 9th Circuit rulings “create a significant amount of uncertainty for local officials over what is legally permissible” when confronting homeless encampments, she said.

But while that ruling may limit the ability of local officials to act, removing that law would not solve the homeless problem—it would simply allow local officials to move and displace existing populations.

To start with, experts say that “the largest reason that California has a per-capita homelessness rate of five times that of Texas is because housing is much more expensive in California.”

That’s what the study out of UC San Francisco last year found.

“The study found that for most of the participants, the cost of housing had simply become unsustainable,” the study found. “Participants reported a median monthly household income of $960 in the six months prior to their homelessness, and most believed that either rental subsidies or one-time financial help would have prevented their homelessness.”

“The results of the study confirm that far too many Californians experience homelessness because they cannot afford housing,” said Margot Kushel, MD, direct of the UCSF Benioff Homeless and Housing Initiative (BHHI) and principal investigator of the study.

But it’s worse than that.

Other studies, such as PPIC, have found that “30% of all people in the United States experiencing homelessness resided in California, including half of all unsheltered people (115,491 in California; 233,832 in the US).”

But it’s worse than that.  According to articles last year, “At least 113,660 of those counted were classified as ‘unsheltered,’ making California home to more than half of all people without shelter in America and the only state where more than 70% of the homeless population is unsheltered (by comparison, just 5% of New York’s homeless population was unsheltered).”

So the LA Times focused on the law that prevents communities from clearing out homeless people.

But what they failed to analyze are these deeper problems—California has the largest percentage of homeless people because of the housing crisis, but California is also the state with most of the unsheltered homeless people; in contrast, only five percent of New York’s homeless is unsheltered.

That would seem to be an issue to focus on, rather than figuring out how to displace homeless people.

Focusing on a symptom is not the solution.

DA Brooke Jenkins took heat last week for making controversial comments that homeless people “have to be made to be uncomfortable,” a “reference to the idea that regularly sweeping encampments encourages unhoused people to accept offers of shelter.”

During a forum last week, she said, “They have to be made to be uncomfortable is the truth of the matter.”

“We cannot make it comfortable for them to pitch a tent on our sidewalks and stay,” she said. “So that’s the theory of being able to now respond and say, ‘Now you have been offered shelter, you have refused it, now you must move.’”

As the Chronicle pointed out, “Homeless advocates say such sweeps are cruel and further destabilize unsheltered individuals while wasting public money that should instead go toward housing and treatment.”

But there is a debate on this point.  Mayor Breed and Governor Newsom, for instance, “argue that permitting people, some of whom are dealing with untreated mental illnesses or substance abuse, to live in squalor also is not a viable option. “

Meanwhile, “Advocates argue that shelters are not viable long-term housing options and many individuals reject shelters because of the living conditions and strict rules that bar bringing pets and belongings with them.”

Clearly, California has to figure out a way to get people living on the streets into transitional housing.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith Y Echols

    You see to believe that one should stop the house cleaner from coming to clean the house and wait until you’ve finally trained the kids to stop tracking in dirt and mud into the house.  Meanwhile the house is getting dirtier and dirtier.

    1. Walter Shwe

      I love the way Keith Y. Echols has demonized the unhoused by calling them dirt and mud. They are actually people just like you and I. Part of my job is to sometimes speak with people that are either currently or formerly homeless. If my own life had turned out differently, I could have easily been one of them. I frequently remind myself of this.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        Oh my stars and garters!  Is Walter Shwe’s nickers in a knot again???  Did he choose to find offense in a comment again?

        Hey, man I’m glad you got out of whatever you got out of.  But try for once to not think in simplistic feelings commentary and try to think objectively and productively….in a way that provides solutions.   Not cleaning the streets is not an answer to the homeless problem.  Getting the homeless off the streets AND housing them is the solution.  And my point is that doing one does not mean you don’t do the other.

        I at least have tried to come up with solutions to the housing problems (I have posted many ideas about how to generate and pay for public housing that includes affordable housing for very low incomes).  Getting upset and offended is just pointless virtue signaling to make yourself feel better.  Your political tribalism comments have also become tiring.

        1. Walter Shwe

          You post it thus you own it. Could you have been more obtuse in this comment?

          You see to believe that one should stop the house cleaner from coming to clean the house and wait until you’ve finally trained the kids to stop tracking in dirt and mud into the house.  Meanwhile the house is getting dirtier and dirtier.

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