Published with the Valley News Group on February 18, 2021
As the City works to build new shelter, housing and services for homeless Angelenos, we face a number of complex and uncomfortable policy questions that arise when people leave the streets. How do we store or remove people’s possessions that remain on public property after they have moved into a shelter?
My district is finally on its way toward getting a fair share of help for its homeless population, in part thanks to federal Judge David O. Carter’s proceedings in the LA Alliance case. We’ve opened the Willows Bridge Housing in Canoga Park in partnership with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl guaranteeing 15 years of County services, and purchased two hotels to convert into housing. Also we will open two tiny home cabin communities and a new Safe Parking lot.
At the Willows, Kevin’s troubling situation raised some glaring problems right away. I first met Kevin a few years ago at the farmer’s market and we’ve been checking in ever since. A long time Canoga Park resident, he attended Canoga Park High School over 30 years ago. For years he’s been living in the public right of way just blocks from the Willows.
His encampment was the largest on the block with bicycles stored on the curb and a lot of stuff. Kevin is a talented artist/mechanic who built interesting custom bikes for people. Trained as a machinist, he treasures his custom tools.
I have been fighting to ensure that this new West Valley shelter actually houses people from our community, and Kevin was a perfect match. He was very excited and was literally the first in on opening day. However, the Willows allows clients to store some belongings, but they don’t have room for all of Kevin’s possessions. He had a plan and was loading his property into an RV and a pickup truck that he borrowed.
Unfortunately, the Department of Sanitation and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) came by to spot clean, and things went south. Spot cleanings in and around encampments remove trash and hazardous materials. By law, anything blocking ADA or street access can be taken, but Sanitation logs and stores every item so people can reclaim them.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what happened and why. Some of Kevin’s things were stored or thrown away. Kevin was understandably very upset and a number of activists took videos and protested. Some spread misinformation claiming that this was a special enforcement zone cleanup, which it wasn’t; claiming everything was thrown away including his tools and bicycles, which weren’t; some claimed that I was directly involved. None of that is true. But, they were correct that Kevin deserved to be treated better. Ideally he needed better communication, a chance to decide what he didn’t need and enough time to pack up.
Personal possessions on the street need a solution. Some think that leaving items in the public right of way is acceptable, even if the City/taxpayers are paying for a person to have shelter/housing. I disagree. As more housing opens, this will continue to come up. What to do with someone’s belongings on public property? We can’t and shouldn’t leave everything as a monument to a past encampment.
That unfortunately happened in some spots along the 101 freeway after 59 people got shelter working with Judge Carter last fall in our LAHSA pilot project. Most belongings were removed with consent when people took shelter. But piles of stuff remained in a few locations and attracted new people to set up there. I urged Sanitation to clean up these encampment vestiges, they were not legally allowed to remove seemingly abandoned property.
Our streets and sidewalks must be clean and usable while preserving the rights of unsheltered people who have nowhere else to go. The courts have said if someone is unsheltered, their belongings should be left alone. Per the Boise v. Martin case, if a city offers shelter, it can regulate where people are allowed to sit, sleep, lie, or store belongings to allow clear public right of ways.
When people move into government subsidized shelter or housing, they might have to downsize. However, storage programs would make this easier and help prevent them from storing things in public spaces.
A few weeks ago, my team and I worked with “Pastor Don” to convince a chronically homeless man with mental health issues to accept housing. Pastor Don solved this problem by paying for a temporary storage unit. This was the help he needed that LA rarely provides.
As people take shelter we must have the tough discussion about what to do with belongings left on the streets. Can we build trust with unhoused people who have traditionally been let down by the system? We can’t let stuff sit on the streets and sidewalks forever. We need clear protocols so everyone understands the rules and how they are implemented.
Otherwise, many more people will be in Kevin’s position- with both housing and tents, preventing the City from being able to keep the sidewalks clear. Communities that say yes to more housing and services for the most vulnerable deserve better.
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