Santa Monica, an affluent beachside city where more than 900 people are estimated to sleep outside each night, has violated the constitutional rights of homeless persons and instituted a policy that has driven them into surrounding communities, alleges a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California and a Los Angeles law firm.

The complaint alleges that the City of Santa Monica has made it a crime to sleep in public places despite the fact that the city lacks sufficient shelters for most of the homeless, and has allowed its police force to cite homeless persons for various offenses with the intention of forcing them to relocate to nearby communities such as Venice. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles July 14th on behalf of certain homeless individuals.

The city’s practice involving the homeless discriminates on both poverty and disability, as most of Santa Monica’s homeless suffer from mental and physical disabilities, the complaint states.

“We have spoken to many homeless, mentally ill residents in Santa Monica and we have documented a campaign to drive them out of Santa Monica and send them to nearby communities,” alleged Mark Rosenbaum, ACLU of Southern California legal director.

“It’s the most aggressive campaign to criminalize homelessness and mental illness that we’ve detected anywhere in Southern California. The police are seeking to run a deportation campaign against the homeless and mentally ill.”

Santa Monica is accused in the complaint of violating residents’ constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, their rights to equal protection, due process and freedom from illegal search and seizure, as well as their statutory protection against discrimination based on disability.

The cases of several homeless persons are described in the lawsuit, including a woman diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who has been arrested and jailed by police at least three times for violating the city’s camping in public ordinance. The woman has been told by officers that she can not sleep on the streets, causing her to move to Venice, the lawsuit says.

Another plaintiff is a 38-year-old homeless man who was arrested for sleeping on the street outside a local shelter where there were no available beds that night. After the man pleaded with police not to arrest him out of fear of losing his job, the man was taken to jail and later lost his job, the lawsuit states.

City officials who are active in efforts to support the homeless expressed surprise in response to the complaint and referred to a number of city programs on behalf of the homeless, including the Homeless Community Court and an initiative to house those who are most at risk of dying on the street.

“We were really taken aback because we feel that we have a record unparalleled in terms of providing effective solutions to helping get people off the streets,” said Julie Rusk, city human services manager.

Rusk noted that there are 460 shelter and temporary housing beds provided in the city of eight square miles and more than 1,500 homeless people have received help moving into permanent housing.

John Maceri, executive director of the social service organization OPCC, also said the lawsuit came as a surprise given the city’s work to address homelessness.

“Santa Monica, as a city, funds a lot of programs that serve the homeless,” Maceri said.

Maceri explained that the lawsuit is not focusing on the programs in place but rather the enforcement action of police regarding the homeless. If the allegations are found to be true, Maceri said the solution to homelessness is not to arrest people with disabilities.

Police department spokesman Sgt. Jay Trisler said although he has not reviewed the ACLU complaint, the department uses a “balanced approach” to address quality of life issues in the community and affirmed that police are not trying to force the homeless out of the city.

“The intention of the police department for any type of enforcement is not to drive the homeless out,” Trisler said. “Homelessness is not a crime.”

Police follow the same protocol with homeless individuals as with average citizens in determining if a citation is warranted and the department has worked with other agencies to help ensure homeless services are provided, Trisler said. The department has six officers assigned to the homeless liaison program, he said.

“Our goal is to try to get people the services they need,” he said. “I think Santa Monica, in comparison to other cities, has done a lot of good work trying to address the social issue.”

While Santa Monica has taken action to provide shelter beds, the city still lacks sufficient services and housing for the mentally ill homeless, Rosenbaum said.

In order to ensure that the homeless situation is improved and people are not being driven to nearby communities, the city needs to work to ensure that sufficient services are offered to the population, he said.

“What Santa Monica needs to do is what other communities have done to end homelessness — provide sufficient housing and services,” Rosenbaum said.

Maceri agreed, saying, “We’ve got to be building more permanent supportive housing not only in Santa Monica but all of LA County, which is the ultimate solution.”

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