Organizing Skid Row

Organizing Skid Row

Activists in L.A. are connecting homelessness to the issues of over-policing, gentrification, and the fight for affordable housing—and asking the city to recognize the homeless as members of the community, rather than a problem to be swept out of view.

(David McNew/Getty Images)

Mornings on Venice Beach are often chilly, thanks to low-lying leaden clouds known as the marine layer. The gloom leaves no golden SoCal gleam on the graffitied concrete skate structures or the shuttered souvenir hutches promising legal pot, bikinis, T-shirts, and ice cream. Surfers cross the sand with their wetsuits half-on, joggers careen through with smartwatches on their wrists, and jet-lagged tourists wheel their suitcases in search of a beachfront hostel. And each Friday morning, near the famous weight-lifting equipment of Muscle Beach, a flotilla of trucks and police cruisers assembles. Police officers and sanitation workers, dressed in blue uniforms or white Tyvek coveralls, huddle amid the trucks before the sweep begins.

Their targets are the items accumulated by people living on the beach, the boardwalk, and in the alleys of Venice. Los Angeles permits sleeping in public spaces from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., but on Fridays in Venice, the belongings of each of the unhoused must be packed up and consolidated into a sixty-gallon plastic bag, per city code. Anything that doesn’t fit, anything deemed “bulky,” will be seized, and if it’s “soiled,” it will be trashed.

Longtime Venice homeless know the sweep is coming, and they are packed up and standing at attention by 7 a.m., guarding their neatly stacked sixty gallons, having dragged the excess to someplace where it might pass unnoticed—behind a dumpster, into a sympathetic homeowner’s driveway. Those who aren’t ready scramble as the parade approaches. There’s an exodus from the sand—people dragging behind them laundry bags, baskets, suitcases propped on bicycles, or belongings wrapped in blankets. The trucks crawl along as the officers walk up to encampments. When the sweep approaches a camp that hasn’t been quick enough to clean up, officers will often close off the area with police tape. Tourists stop to gawk.

“Sir, you have too much property,” an officer tells a homeless man during one of the sweeps.

“What would happen if we went to your house and did this to your house?” he retorts. Arguments ensue. Someone had an appointment and had to leave their things unattended, and their friends are trying to keep it; a homeless street vendor’s paintings are stacked neatly on a cart, but exceed sixty gallons; someone needs extra time to move their cat, who sits impervious in a pink harness on top of a suitcase.

Blankets and cushions are often declared soiled. Any sign of drug use, needles especially, triggers an aggressive seizure. Bags are slashed open and picked through with trash claws. Sometimes the sanitation officers don’t bother to dig through, and a whole shopping cart full of stuff goes straight into the trash truck. The police often repeat that it’s up to sanitation to decide what goes and what gets a pass. But they are there to enforce. In the words of one officer: “You’ve got fifteen minutes to put everything you want in a sixty-gallon bag; if not, you’re going in handcuffs. Super simple.”

I’ve watched many of these sweeps over the past year and a half as a volunteer participating in Street Watch, an initiative organized by the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Skid Row activist group Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), and carried out with volunteers from KTown for All, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and other organizations. Modeled on Copwatch and building on monitoring work done by LA CAN, Venice Community Housing, and other legal observers over the past several decades, Street Watch sends volunteers out to observe and record sweeps of homeless encampments around the city, looking for illegal seizure of property and other forms of harassment, and offering support to the people in the camps. The work differs from charity outreach in critical ways. As well as helping homeless people to prepare for sweeps and keep their belongings, volunteers provide know-your-rights information. Street Watch also tries to engage homeless Angelenos in the broader fight for housing in the city, offering them rides to public hearings, demonstrations, or organizing meetings. (In this, it also follows the example of LA CAN, which was founded on the principle of low-income downtown residents organizing themselves. The group says that its model “directly addresses the core problem of exclusion of low-income residents in public decision-making by recruiting and training members to be involved—whether invited or not—in all levels of decision-making impacting our communities.”) Street Watch is about connecting homelessness to the issues of over-policing, gentrification, rent control, and the fight for affordable housing—and asking the city to recognize the homeless as members of the community deserving of resources and support, rather than a problem to be swept out of view.

The outlay of resources on these sweeps is visibly ridiculous. I took to counting the number of cops and sanitation officers surrounding a homeless person as they sifted through their things in a humiliating exercise of trying to identify what meant most to them: Marie Kondo or jail. Five cops and four sanitation workers surrounded one man for thirty minutes “checking for needles.” Eleven sanitation workers and four cops watched a woman divide her belongings on the beach, leaving for the trash can a feather boa and a boogie board. “This is my life, dude,” she told a sanitation worker.

The unhoused stand to lose in these sweeps their means of shelter—blankets, tarps, cushions, and other minor comforts—as well as medications, personal documents, electronics, food, and, in the case of street vendors, their merchandise. I’ve seen a bike seized because it didn’t have a seat, and I’ve seen a homeless man lose an argument with a sanitation worker that he needed one bike for parts to fix another. Per city policy, excess property can be stored for pick-up within ninety days, but the warehouse that holds the property is downtown, near Skid Row but miles away from many other encampments in a city notorious for its limited public transit, with limited hours. Many homeless are skeptical, saying that more often than not the stuff is declared soiled and thrown out anyway.

“Nine times out of ten they throw it in the back of the trash compactor,” a man in Venice told me. The sweeps contribute to a feeling of hopelessness, and are especially aggravating for those with mental illness. The presence of cops exacerbates tensions. One elderly woman, who was sitting morosely by her tent after a sweep, said, “I was already feeling particularly ostracized by society today.”

 

The number of homeless in Los Angeles Country grew to 58,900 in 2019, a 12 percent increase over last year (within city limits, there were 36,300, a 16 percent increase). The city has responded to the crisis by doubling down on “cleaning up” encampments and effectively forcing their inhabitants to move elsewhere. Businesses contribute by routinely power-washing sidewalks to discourage people from setting up camp and inserting landscaping or putting up dummy construction fences along the sidewalks so that any tent is automatically in violation of laws requiring a right of way, along with other forms of what urban designers and advocates call “hostile architecture” (such as armrests that prevent sleeping on public benches or spikes along building ledges to keep people from sitting; some public buildings use these tactics too). City ordinances against sleeping or sitting on sidewalks and the sixty-gallon rule are, as Shayla Myers of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles has written, “focused almost solely on addressing the visible signs of homelessness—tents, sleeping bags, cars—rather than the needs and lived experiences of the people.”

L.A.’s ambitious mayor, Eric Garcetti, has banked his reputation on his winning bid for the Olympics in 2028 (in January, he ended his 2020 presidential ambitions, which had been much-ridiculed by local activists). But housing and homelessness remain the defining problems of his tenure. Activists fear that the Olympic Games will bring aggressive development, increased policing, and more displacement of the poor and the homeless, as they have in other host cities and in Los Angeles itself in 1984.

In 2016 voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure that was supposed to lead to 10,000 new units of housing for the homeless, but the money appears to be falling short of the goal. Garcetti has also committed to a plan called “A Bridge Home” that would open emergency temporary shelters around the city. But in order to appease NIMBYs—like the Venice residents who have raised $200,000 for a lawsuit against a proposed shelter in their neighborhood, which they say will “act as a magnet for homeless individuals and encampments”—the city has promised that the shelters will come with an increase in police presence and sanitation funding. “Special enforcement zones” around the shelters are subject to five-day-a-week cleanups and aggressive ticketing for city code violations. Many advocates, while supporting the new shelters, see the enforcement zones as more of the same in terms of the criminalization and harassment of homelessness.

These policies reflect the belief that homelessness is mainly a problem for businesses and homeowners, rather than for the homeless themselves. As Andrea Gibbons recounts in her book City of Segregation: 100 Years of Struggle for Housing in Los Angeles, L.A. has a long history of deference to private interests and criminalization of the unhoused.

Skid Row in L.A. is perhaps America’s most famous symbol of homelessness. Known for over a century for its residential hotels for transients and its tent cities, in recent years the dynamics on Skid Row have been replicated in smaller encampments that have cropped up across the city as the cost of housing has skyrocketed.

As Gibbons explains, people sleeping in Skid Row have long been the target of downtown business interests, which coalesced in the 1990s to form business improvement districts (BIDs) with their own gun-toting private security forces. The ACLU and others brought a lawsuit against what they called the BIDs’ “systematic, concerted campaign” to harass the homeless and shoo them away. Gibbons quotes Pete White, of LA CAN, summarizing the BIDs’ effect: “Now such basic social interactions as resting for a spell on a street corner, eating lunch on a curb, or just standing on the street having a conversation with a friend result in hassle from Business Improvement Districts.”

That lawsuit won some concessions: the settlement ordered private security guards to stop carrying guns and to stop searching, photographing, or requesting identification from the homeless. But those gains were offset in later years by a renewed push to develop downtown L.A. and rid it of much of its low-income housing stock—an effort that came with a massively increased police presence and enforcement of public health and quality-of-life offenses (led by a new police chief, Bill Bratton, who pioneered the “broken windows” theory of policing in New York City before coming to L.A.).

Gibbons connects homelessness to the changing metrics of residential segregation in L.A. and other urban areas. Where once advocates fought segregation caused by white flight and racial covenants, now communities of color must struggle against active displacement from their homes and even from the street. Forty percent of L.A. County homeless are African American. Homeless communities like Skid Row, Gibbons argues, are “understood to lie outside of a public with a commonly shared set of rights.”

Litigation has produced a tenuous understanding of the rights of the homeless: thanks to a 2007 settlement, tents are allowed up overnight and when it is very cold or raining, and a 2016 case limited property seizures in Skid Row. The lawsuits and settlements and revisions to city code have created a patchwork of policies governing where and how the homeless are allowed to be—including the sixty-gallon rule, which the city council passed in 2016. The result has been an ongoing argument between activists and the city over what is legitimate property and what can be seized.

Cities in the western United States are having to rethink their anti-homeless ordinances after a court decision last fall. In September 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that laws criminalizing sleeping or camping on the street—when there are no beds to be had—violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case originated in Boise, Idaho, but sets precedent for much of the western United States. The court decided (and upheld in April) that “As long as the homeless plaintiffs do not have a single place where they can lawfully be, the challenged ordinances, as applied to them, effectively punish them for something for which they may not be convicted under the [E]ighth [A]mendment—sleeping, eating and other innocent conduct.”

Municipalities across the western United States are reportedly reconsidering enforcement of certain ordinances in light of the Ninth Circuit decision; cities in Orange County have been sued for anti-camping laws. L.A. was already bound by the earlier settlement to allow camping overnight, and it’s unclear how the decision will impact enforcement of other violations. There are still plenty of ways to criminalize the homeless in L.A.: in 2018, for instance, the city issued 1,424 citations to homeless people for sitting on the sidewalk. Possessing a shopping cart or a milk crate is also illegal.

It’s unlikely the Ninth Circuit, or any court decision, will lead to a total rethinking of an approach that treats the homeless like criminals. How we think about homelessness shapes how we respond to it. Another perspective—that homeless people aren’t simply eyesores or hygiene hazards, or potential criminals, but community members—has produced another response, embodied by efforts like Street Watch: to assert the rights of homeless people as citizens like any others.

In a new campaign, activist groups including DSA-LA, LA CAN, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, and others are asking the city for “Services Not Sweeps”—to use the money it spends on sweeps, and particularly police presence at those sweeps, on health and social worker outreach teams, needle exchanges, toilets, showers, regular trash pickup, and other services. Pointing out that homeless residents also value orderly, safe, public spaces, the campaign asks the city to change its whole approach and actually focus on cleaning up the area rather than targeting unhoused people’s belongings. Rather than an ad-hoc response to property owners’ complaints, each cleanup would happen on a regular schedule (as is done in Venice and Skid Row), allowing for preparation, and the times and locations of the sweeps would be posted online to allow for independent monitoring and accountability.

Services Not Sweeps also calls for removing police from cleanups and homeless outreach. In the last quarter of 2018, one-third of the LAPD’s use-of-force incidents were against homeless people; and of course, they are the ones writing the tickets for minor offenses. From observing sweeps, it’s clear that police presence is often an aggravating factor in the encounters between sanitation workers and the homeless. In late June, the mayor’s office unveiled a new protocol for some city clean-ups, which adopts many of Services Not Sweeps’ demands. Police officers, however, will remain part of the sweep teams.

A common refrain is that services will attract the homeless, and only make the encampments permanent. But providing services is merely addressing reality. The encampments aren’t going anywhere until a revolutionary amount of affordable housing is created in Los Angeles. The homeless do not want to live in squalor, and trashcans, showers, and toilets would be welcome resources. Bringing these things to the encampments recognizes that the homeless are part of the community, while sweeps serve only to penalize them for a problem that belongs to everyone.

In Venice, the sweeps happen on the doorsteps of buildings that were bought up by Snapchat to use as offices, part of the area’s transformation into “Silicon Beach.” With the tech workers have come airy, white-walled cafés and high-end restaurants, spin studios and designer boutiques and murals made for Instagram modeling. One morning late this spring, a young man wearing Snapchat sunglasses, tight-fitting sweatpants, and walking a small dog stopped to watch a sweep in action and began loudly cheering for the cops. “THANK YOU,” he yelled. “THANK YOU!” In a city famous for shameless accumulation and displays of status, the sweep left behind several men sitting in the alley with their remaining belongings on display in clear plastic sixty-gallon bags—a transparent injustice.


Cora Currier is an editor at The Intercept. She lives in Los Angeles.

Note: The online version of this essay features minor updates added after the Summer 2019 issue was printed.

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