Laws allowing police to ticket and arrest homeless people for sleeping in a car, sitting on the sidewalk — or even leaving their bags on the sidewalk while they use a bathroom — are part of a larger strategy to criminalize homelessness and by extension, poverty, according to attorneys and advocates for homeless people at a conference at the UC Irvine School of Law.
The daylong conference, called “Opposing the Criminalization of Homelessness: Building a Human Rights Framework,” drew about 100 people Saturday, including lawyers, activists, law students and academics.
Conference speakers described an aggressive campaign of arrests on charges from littering to loitering in order to drive away homeless residents of Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood. Panelists also discussed efforts to disguise the problem of homelessness in Orange County.
“We’re good at hiding it and hiding it really well,” said Renato Izquieta, attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. “You will find homeless in every park in this county, including San Clemente, Laguna Beach and more.”
When Izquieta began providing legal services to homeless people, he thought his work would focus on disability benefits and related services, he said. Instead, his homeless clients often face complex legal dilemmas related to family law, tax problems and for veterans, post traumatic stress disorder.
Izquita said that when police confiscate a homeless person’s possessions, they are not only destabilizing that person psychologically but also burdening him or her with significant expenses. For example, he said, replacing a permanent residency card can cost $400.
LA activists, meanwhile, spoke of new strategies being used in their city to push homeless people out. They include the deployment of private security guards and making a condition of probation for homeless people to leave the city.
Another huge issue that affects homeless people everywhere is access to clean bathrooms. This is a particular problem for the homeless people living near the Civic Center in Santa Ana, local activists said.
Dwight Smith, who operates Isaiah House, a Catholic Worker shelter in Santa Ana, said that in government buildings homeless people are often allowed to use only certain bathrooms, a policy he derisively labeled “separate but equal,” referring to the pre-civil rights era laws imposed on black people.
During the question and answer period, participants in the conference asked the expert panel how they could assist homeless people when they witness what appears to be harassment by police or private security guards. Panelists said that one strategy is to film the alleged harassment and contact the county public defender's office to follow up on the case.
Panelist Robert Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, recalled a mass arrest of 64 homeless people in Santa Ana in 1990, which involved handcuffing people to benches and writing identification numbers on their arms. Later, a police officer asked why the writing on arms was objectionable, and Cohen explained the use of the practice during the Holocaust.
And yet, Cohen said, that same officer later retired and sought to help undocumented people, showing that “people’s consciousness can be raised.”
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine literary journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org