United Nations monitor Philip Alston, who heard from Orange County homeless advocates and civil rights lawyers among others during a nationwide tour, said many American communities are criminalizing homelessness, making it more difficult for people to find jobs and housing.
“In many cities and counties the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but diverse other programs,” said Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in a detailed statement released Friday at the end of his two-week U.S. tour.
In much of the United States, it is “a crime to be homeless,” Alston added in a Friday news conference.
“If you are sleeping on the street, if you are sitting on the street, it’s a crime in many jurisdictions. If you urinate in the street, it’s a crime. And we might well think it should be…But in cities that determinedly provide no public toilets, what would we expect? What would most of us do?”
Those infraction tickets require fines and fees that many homeless people can’t afford, which can lead to misdemeanor criminal records that make it even more difficult for homeless people to get jobs and housing, he added.
Alston plans to prepare a report and present it in June to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
As part of his U.S. tour, he visited Los Angeles this month and heard testimony from civil rights advocates and lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) office in Los Angeles, including an hour-long panel discussion of homelessness in Orange County.
The county is in the process of trying to dismantle large homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River, and for decades homeless people have faced tickets for camping in public, including in the county Civic Center, amid a shortage of shelter beds.
The advocates said elected officials in Orange County have effectively made it a crime to be homeless through laws against camping and sleeping on public property, while not providing a sufficient number of shelter beds to house the street homeless population.
“There isn’t enough shelter in Orange County for people to be moved to,” said Catherine Sweetser, who co-directs the UC Irvine School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic.
Sheriff’s deputies, she told the UN representative, “have been using tickets and infractions and misdemeanors to characterize people [living] in the [Santa Ana] riverbed as criminals,” and then using that as justification to remove homeless people from the riverbed.
The effect of these laws is homeless people “are constantly in violation of the law,” and thus are not entitled to the same political and civil rights that others have, said Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Los Angeles, who said she was speaking about Orange and LA counties and elsewhere.
“An individual who is in violation of the law is constantly subject” to disproportionate policing and being searched and stopped by law enforcement “at any moment,” she added. People sitting, lying, or sleeping on a sidewalk are subject to search, arrest, and the types of actions the 4th Amendment would normally prohibit, she said.
In addition to camping tickets, homeless people have received citations for having an “excessive” amount of property, said Lili Graham, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. These tickets happen “because they’re homeless,” and affect their ability to get housing and health services, she added.
Alston, who is officially the UN’s “special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights,” heard from seven Orange County-based attorneys and advocates for homeless people, including Sweetser; Graham; attorney Brooke Weitzman; and advocates Jeanine Robbins of Anaheim and Morgan Denges of the Orange County Catholic Worker.
Alston, who is also a professor of international law at New York University, told the speakers at the end of their testimony, “It’s been fantastic. Many thanks.”
“I don’t question any of the details, and they’re extremely helpful,” he added.
Alston said he would be speaking with government officials in Los Angeles for their perspective, including the Los Angeles Police Department, but he didn’t visit Orange County and a spokeswoman said Alston would not be meeting with any OC officials.
Alston didn’t have time to visit Orange County during his two-day stay in Los Angeles, said Eve Garrow, a homelessness advocate with the ACLU who helped organize the testimony session. He did ask for public official contacts in Los Angeles, she said.
Alston later tweeted a photo of himself meeting with staff of the Los Angeles mayor’s office, including the “Deputy Mayors of Economic Opportunity & International Affairs, and the Director of Homelessness Policy,” whom he said he spoke with “about criminalization of homelessness in the city.”
Alston also toured Skid Row during his two-day stop in LA on Dec. 4 and 5.
A spokesman for the LAPD said its public affairs office was not aware of any meeting between Alston and the police department, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean a meeting didn’t happen.
A spokeswoman for Orange County’s top countywide elected official, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel, didn’t return a Voice of OC message asking if the supervisor had been interested in speaking with the UN representative and, if so, what she would have liked to say.
Alston said he would also be speaking with government officials for their perspective. “I’m meeting with a lot of officials, both in D.C. but also here in LA and elsewhere.”
“My task then is to balance the information I get and draw conclusions,” he said.
Alston’s spokeswoman declined to say which agencies and officials he met with. “We don’t normally necessarily report that” to the media, said the spokeswoman, Junko Tadaki.
Alston reiterated that position during Friday’s news conference when asked for a list of people he met with.
Tadaki said Alston did want to gather a variety of perspectives. “We wanted to speak with a broad range of people, with different experiences,” she said.
As part of his visit in Los Angeles, Alston also heard from members of the public invited by the homelessness advocacy group Los Angeles Community Action Network, known as LA CAN, at a forum hosted by the group at its headquarters.
It’s unclear why the UN didn’t hold an open forum with a broader invitation to hear from the general public about the topic. Tadaki didn’t return a follow-up phone message seeking comment.
During the Orange County panel testimony at the ACLU offices, Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor who studies poverty, said laws criminalizing homelessness stem from larger societal forces than just government officials.
“Police officers didn’t come up with the idea that this is what they should be doing. They didn’t go to the academy, most of them, for the purpose of doing this,” Blasi said. “Even the [county] supervisors, this is not necessarily something they just thought up. They’re responding to forces above them – and I’m not talking about any global conspiracy, I’m just talking about the fundamental social structure of the country.”
Orange County, he said, “makes this case even the strongest: the real deal is essentially to treat people as if they are not human, but rather as objects, like waste, to be moved.”
While people talk about driving while black being a crime, Blasi said, “being human while homeless is now a crime…It’s crime to lay down” on a sidewalk or sleep in a public park, so their choice is to violate those laws, trespass on private property, or “levitate yourself” off the ground.
The consequences of such enforcement can be damaging to people’s ability to get off the streets, Alston said in his statement Friday.
“Ever more demanding and intrusive regulations lead to infraction notices, which rapidly turn into misdemeanors, leading to the issuance of warrants, incarceration, the incurring of unpayable fines, and the stigma of a criminal conviction that in turn virtually prevents subsequent employment and access to most housing.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.