The Martin decision means homeless encampments are here to stay until we provide alternatives

By Michael Rapkin

The writer is a local homeowner, part owner of a restaurant on Ocean Front Walk and a longtime attorney who advocates for the homeless population.

A significant court decision last week has made it clear that as long as there remains insufficient housing, Los Angeles and other cities cannot prosecute homeless people for living in encampments.

In Martin v. City of Boise, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from imposing criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.

“Just as the state may not criminalize the state of being homeless in public places,” the court explained, “the state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying or sleeping on the streets.”

There are about 23,000 homeless people in the city of Los Angeles, which far exceeds the roughly 10,000 beds available in shelters or supportive housing. We need to bridge this gap. The court has told us that until we do, encampments will and must be allowed to persist no matter how much people complain about them.

Bridging the housing gap may seem like an insurmountable challenge — particularly in Venice, home to 45% of our city council district’s homeless population — but to do so is in the best interests of both residents and people who are without homes.

Residents want to feel safe in their community. They want to eliminate tent encampments, forbid individuals from living in alleys and sidewalks, and get rid of personal property in public areas and human excrement on streets and sidewalks. At the same time, people who are homeless almost unanimously want housing — a bed, toilet and shower — and a safe place to sit, lie or sleep. I submit that these concerns will only be alleviated with more housing.

Those who oppose shelter housing or affordable housing or permanent supportive housing in their immediate neighborhoods have concerns, including whether an increase in housing will bring an increase in crime and negatively affect their housing values. It would be wrong for pro-housing activists to dismiss these fears and feelings out of hand.

However, those that oppose shelter must understand that there are already about 845 homeless people in Venice on any given night and, pursuant to this court decision, they will not be going anywhere. Therefore, a choice must be made: create the necessary housing or continue with hundreds of people living on the streets in Venice, including people who are mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs, seniors who became homeless because their rents skyrocketed, homeless youth who come from a dysfunctional home and childhood, and women who escaped domestic violence only to now live on the streets. As L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes Venice, was quoted after the Martin ruling: “It’s either provide the housing and shelter, or allow people to sleep on public property.”

The choice, it seems obvious to me, is for the entire community to work together and proceed to intelligently design and build permanent supportive housing for these real human beings and, in the interim, to provide temporary or “bridge” housing. As it stands now, in Venice there is not one emergency shelter.

The Venice Chamber of Commerce agrees. It stated: “We support the city of Los Angeles’ commitment to provide long-term solutions for housing. The chamber supports using the bus yard as a short-term option, as it provides a solution to addressing the immediate needs of housing the homeless.”

This article is not intended to advocate for or against using the Metro bus stop; it is to say “enough is enough.” It is time for all of us to understand and accept that under the Martin case, unhoused people will be able to continue to live in and around our streets. “Not in Venice” should no longer be a battle cry; we must work together for “beds not sidewalks.”

My wife and I recently put our discomfort aside and decided to bring into our house a young married couple who, until last week, had been homeless and sleeping in their car. They were complete strangers to us until a few weeks ago.

This young man works full-time, and his wife just began a 15-week training program to prepare her for a good job. The plan is for them to save enough money so they can afford to move into their own affordable housing unit in three or four months.

In the meantime, they are now safe from those who might want to harm or intimidate them, and now have the basic elements of life that most housed people take for granted: a bed, a toilet and a shower.

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