Trutanich Fighting the Good Fight on Skid Row

One week ago, I sent the below article to the LA Times in hopes they would publish it.  Unfortunately they declined.  However, I hope you will take the time to read this article and stay informed on the situation of Skid Row.

Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich has a strong record of supporting solutions to Skid Row’s problems so it was disappointing to read a recent Los Angeles Times editorial that implied otherwise.

Trutanich first distinguished himself through an innovative lawsuit to protect the many Skid Row residents trying to stay drug-free. From lessons he personally learned during his monthly Skid Row walks, Trutanich filed a pioneering injunction in 2010 against 80 persons known to sell drugs to people experiencing homelessness. This injunction bars these 80 predators (and other individuals as they are identified) from setting foot on Skid Row. The injunction was crafted after Trutanich consulted with social service providers who know that easy access to drugs is a curse for Skid Row residents fighting addiction, mental illness and drug abuse.

This legal initiative earned Trutanich the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys’ Innovations in Criminal Justice Award in 2011.

Trutanich has also championed other tools to improve Skid Row. His office worked to nearly double the capacity of Central City East Association’s landmark storage program. That program allows people experiencing homelessness to store their possessions for free, in large storage bins, one bin per person, at a local warehouse. It provides more than 1,000 people with “closet space” to store valuables, changes of clothes, sleeping bags, and small tents.

The CCEA program empowers homeless persons to attend school, work, receive rehabilitation services, and make doctor visits, knowing their valuables are off the street and secure. It provides people with real dignity and expands their opportunities.

This summer Trutanich also spearheaded a new city effort, Operation Healthy Streets, to clean Skid Row, to make it a safer, healthier environment. Five tons of property were removed in that costly two-week effort, applauded by the Los Angeles Times. As part of that effort, Trutanich’s office worked with other city agencies to establish a second warehouse, complementing the CCEA program, where the unattended property of homeless persons picked up by city crews on street cleaning days is stored gratis.

Still the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in its Sept. 5, 2012 decision, handcuffed the city’s ability to manage one of the most serious problems on Skid Row – the encampments festering on its sidewalks.

The three judge panel’s 2-to-1 decision against the city affirmed a misguided lower court ruling that has encouraged people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row – and increasingly in other parts of the city, like Venice – to set up semi- permanent squatter-villages on sidewalks and accumulate mounds of clutter that invite health problems.

Judge Consuelo Callahan dissented, saying the encampment dwellers – a small but highly visible constituency on Skid Row – pose an out-sized health and safety threat to Skid Row’s other constituents. Those others include employees and owners of the many light industry, food processing and retail businesses on Skid Row and the folks who are as destitute as the encampment dwellers but choose to live in SRO housing and rescue missions on Skid Row. These Skid-Row stakeholders also have rights.

In her dissent, Judge Callahan wrote: “The majority opinion…does not acknowledge the interests of the other people in Skid Row [italics added]—homeless or otherwise—who must navigate a veritable maze of bio-hazards and trash as they go about their daily business.”

Unfortunately, the 9th Circuit’s majority sided with encampment dwellers and gutted the city’s options for dealing with the terrible conditions they create. Yet the Los Angeles Times editorial applauded the 9thCircuit’s majority opinion and urged Trutanich to “accept the ruling and abandon his misguided legal battle.”

So who’s “misguided” here? The 9th Circuit decision puts no limit on how much property people experiencing homelessness may store, with almost complete impunity, on the city sidewalks. The 9th Circuit did not – as the Times suggested in its editorial – seek to protect only a homeless person’s “important personal possessions” (which the Times says would include “identification, medication, family photographs, cell phones or sleeping bags”). No, the court was not that reasonable or judicious – it said everything homeless persons claim as theirs should be protected from city crews. Should Trutanich and the citizens of LA take the Times’ advice and accept this?

The 9th Circuit did say “abandoned” property could be removed from sidewalks and stored by city crews. But the Court provided no guidance about how long property can sit unattended before it becomes “abandoned. Often homeless persons end up in hospitals, jails or other institutions. In the meantime, their property sits on sidewalks, festering. And how is the city supposed to identify the owners of abandoned bags of clothing and grocery carts full of stuff? When such property is finally deemed abandoned (a bureaucrat with a stop-watch is envisioned here), the 9th Circuit says the city must store it for 90 days in the event it might later be claimed.

In effect, the 9th Circuit and the Times envision a sizable bureaucracy to monitor “stuff” on the street, inventory it when seized, and store it for safekeeping for 90 days. Should Trutanich and the citizens of LA take the Times’ advice and accept this?

The 9th Circuit did say the city may seize and destroy encampment property that poses a health and safety threat or is deemed contraband (drugs) or evidence of a crime.

But must Skid Row’s other stakeholders wait until conditions in the sidewalk encampments get so vile that health inspectors and city maintenance crews in moon-suits must clean up the feces, urine, rats, bedbugs, fleas, cockroaches, bloody bandages, hypodermic needles and decaying food that often infest these encampments?

There is a simpler solution – CCEA’s storage program. It provides homeless persons with real opportunities to store their possessions and keep them off the sidewalks where they are vulnerable to theft, vandalism and seizure. In fact, the presence of such property on the street is often the cause of ugly disputes between individuals experiencing homelessness.

The Times should also ask county health officials, business owners, employees, residents and those of us who dedicate our lives to Skid-Row’s issues who is “misguided”?

Trutanich is trying to represent the lawful interests of everyone on Skid Row. Instead of throwing stones, the Times should join Trutanich in challenging the 9th Circuit to make the tough decisions needed to find an equitable balance between the sometimes competing interests of encampment dwellers and all the others who live and work on Skid Row.


Rev. Andy Bales, CEO

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