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Op-Ed: Court's Ruling Enables Homeless People


And now, the Opinion Page. Should the homeless have the right to store their personal possessions on the sidewalk? Does that include sofas and mattresses? Last year, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction against the city of Los Angeles after police swept up the property of homeless people on Skid Row. The seizures included legal documents and medicine. But after the ruling, some hopeless people have added furniture and tents to their stakeouts on the sidewalk.

In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Carol Schatz argued that a well-intended injunction now allows the homeless to use the sidewalks as their personal storage facilities. And with the growing pile, she wrote, have come disease, vermin and crime. If you live in a city where this has been an issue, how do balance the rights of the homeless, local businesses and public health? Are there alternatives? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Carol Schatz is president and chief executive of the Central City Association, a business group. She joins us from the studios at Marketplace in Los Angeles. Nice to have you with us today.

CAROL SCHATZ: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And doesn't the judge have a point? Even homeless people have a right to keep what few possessions they have.

SCHATZ: The problem is that the streets were not made for people to live on them. They were made to transport people. And we are not dealing with a population that are those that may have recently lost their jobs, found themselves on the street through some bad decisions or just bad economic circumstances. What we're talking about here is the behavior of what we call street people or street dwellers, many of whom are severely mentally ill and who horde as one of the symptoms of their illness.

And unfortunately, many as well are either mentally ill and have a drug addiction or just have a significant drug addiction. So that's what we're dealing with here. And many of these people, all of whom need some assistance have - many of them have refused offers of help. And that brings us to the core of the issue. Let's provide services for people. But what do we do with those who won't make use of them?

CONAN: Yes. I understand the problem. But when the police swept up property that they described as either abandoned or as garbage, and sometimes I can understand that distinction can be pretty difficult to make. But among the things they took were legal documents, medicine, things like that when people stepped away to go to the bathroom.

SCHATZ: I'm not, you know, I'm not going to condone what the police may have done in this one specific circumstance. But the injunction is so broadly stated, Neal, that sofas and desks and arm chairs are now on the streets being tagged as personal property. And so it's a little disingenuous to say that this only applies to neatly tied bundles where people's very important personal papers are being held. That is simply not the case. And if you - I look into those carts every day.

And let's remember that as far as I'm aware, in New York and Chicago, which are the other two large cities in this country, you don't see shopping carts filled with, in many cases, debris. And there has been an increase in crime, as well as vermin, and there's now a very significant public health risk. Three of our LAPD officers who normally work the Skid Row area have reported getting a staph infection, a very serious one, MRSA. And that is because if you allow a culture of living on the street, people have to relieve themselves. If it's truly trash that's in some of these carts, you're going to have vermin, and they spread disease. It's not a simple issue of the police just taking a few pieces of paper. That's not what we're talking about here.

CONAN: So as you've mentioned a temporary injunction, we're now awaiting a ruling that would be a - might be a permanent injunction.

SCHATZ: That is correct, and it should be - we understand that that ruling will be coming very shortly, in the next few weeks.

CONAN: In the next few weeks. So is it possible - and I'm just speculating here - is it possible that the police have now elected to let the situation get, quote, unquote, "out of control," to try to make the case to the judge that, well, this can go too far?

SCHATZ: No. Absolutely not. That was patently, just a ridiculous comment by one of the activists that we find to be so disappointing because, ultimately, what you're talking about here is making it easier for people to deteriorate on the street, and I don't think that that is something that anyone - the police, the activists, those that own property and have businesses - want to see. It's a crime for that to be taking place on the streets of L.A. or anywhere.

CONAN: Now, I know that there have been alternatives explored, including, as I understand it, by your association, which set up a facility where people were able to store their stuff.

SCHATZ: No, that was not my organization.

CONAN: All right. Forgive me then.

SCHATZ: It was the Central City East Association. But it begs the question: we are now turning the police into, you know, the equivalent of those providing coat checks to people. In this case, it's just a broader range of personal property. And they have to make a decision by looking at a cart that's filled with stuff, with a tarp on it, as to whether or not there are important personal papers in there, or is this really personal belongings, or is it trash? Is that the function of the police? Is that the kind of conundrum we want to put them in? And that's what this injunction does.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Carol Schatz, CEO of the Central City Administration of Los Angeles, and she wrote "Enabling Homelessness on L.A.'s Skid Row" for the Los Angeles Times. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Tim, and Tim's with us from Portland.

TIM: Hi. I just want to comment that I do have homeless people living within view of my shop here. I live near Water Avenue in Portland, Oregon, and that's where two of them were shot at the other - about a month ago. We don't know who did it, but somebody just rolled by their little place and shot at them. They lived underneath the bridge. They don't have any place to keep their stuff.

CONAN: And is there any solution that's been offered? Do the police clear them away?

TIM: Well, the police, they usually come through, oh, like, near Fourth of July or someplace when they need the sidewalks and just shove everybody off. But they come back within days, or sometimes that evening, they come right back. But they live underneath our bridges here in Portland. Hawthorne Bridge and the Morrison Bridge are very popular places for people to live.

CONAN: And so these are domiciles, for lack of a better word with - is there tents, furniture, that sort of thing?

TIM: Well, they have furniture, you know, like lounge chairs, and they have all their blankets and all their possessions and, you know, papers and bicycles, and - one guy was actually running a bicycle repair place right down near the corner. I could see him from my shop here.

CONAN: And, Carol Schatz, a description of this people as, for the most part, mentally disturbed or people with addiction problems...

TIM: A lot of them are, yeah, talking to themselves and not communicating well with others and that kind of thing, yes. And that's the reason they can't get rentals or stay in a place because they are unstable, and people don't trust them or don't think that they can be helped by them or, you know. But it would just take so little for them to have a place to keep their stuff overnight or during the day. Because the nighttimes, they're usually with their stuff or they have a shopping cart or whatever at their place. But during the day, they get kicked out of the shelters - I'm shouldn't say it that way. It's lovely to have shelters for them to be in. But they come out of the shelters, and they have to have all their stuff with them. They can't leave one bit of it there. They have important paperwork, a lot of them, of course, because of their condition or on medical paperwork that they have to keep hold off, you know, keep track off. That's hard to do if you have to move all the time.

CONAN: And what does it do to your neighborhood?

TIM: Well, this is an industrial part of Portland and the neighborhood is mostly a lot of upscale bars and restaurants and stuff and businesses. But as far as people wanting to come down here late at night, it sure doesn't want that, you know? It's, you know, there's guys down there standing around, you know. They don't look that great, you know? And some of them are talking to themselves, like I say, and you don't want to wander in your neighborhood at that time. I wish you could because it's a beautiful neighborhood, and I've - I'm totally accepted by them and they know that, you know, I have a shop here and all that. But I try, you know? And I don't have a way - I live in a - I don't live. I stay here at my storage facility if I have to. I wish they had that same thing. They don't.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TIM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Carol Schatz, I'm sure you've looked at this situation as it's evolved in other areas. Have any other cities, to your knowledge, come up with workable solutions?

SCHATZ: Well, other cities, New York, for example, provides more money to deal with this issue, and that is something that we need to look at. One of the things I find very distressing and just, you know, just so incredibly surprising is that, instead of Carol Sobel, who has brought us a number of, in our view, really, really terrible decisions that make life worse for everyone involved in a situation like this, suing the county and the city, saying you have an obligation to various, you know, legal mandates, et cetera, to provide, you know, care across the entire county and the city - across the entire city. No, she's defining how people can live their life on the street. And from our point of view, giving people the constitutional right to deteriorate on the street is not our constitutional right worth having.

CONAN: So what - you're talking - when you mentioned Carol Sobel, the attorney who brought suit in this case.

SCHATZ: Yeah, that's correct.

CONAN: Right. OK. We're talking with Carol Schatz about her op-ed that was published in the Los Angeles Time, "Enabling Homelessness on L.A.'s Skid Row." There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org., click on TALK OF THE NATION, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this email from Wayne in Krakow, Wisconsin: Is this supposedly the greatest notion on Earth? Why are we even dealing with homeless people? Are we, as a society, unable to handle these folks in a far better manner than to have them living on the streets? There's something far more wrong than a superficial issue of homeless people's belongings. And I think that was one of the issues that you raised in your op-ed.

SCHATZ: That is exactly right, and this is - this whole condition should not be condoned, and those services must be offered, but we are going to have to make hard choices about those who are so mentally ill, Neal, for example, that they don't take their medications, all right? And we have seen - and it's not a question of somebody mumbling to themselves in a quiet corner, quiet street corner or a noisy street corner. We're finding more and higher levels of violence among transients and street people than we've seen in the past, and some of it is perpetuated against other transients as well. It doesn't make any difference. It's still frightening to people.

You know, the very poor folks who are housed in single-room occupancy hotels in Skid Row who are inside, who are trying to clean themselves up from addictions and so forth, find that when they step out, they're stepping out into this sort of valley of lawlessness, and it's very hard for them to maintain their sobriety. So it affects those that are just, you know, emerging from homelessness as well as those that are on the street. It is not acceptable in an advanced industrial society to have a condition like this. It's simply not acceptable.

CONAN: An email from Maryann(ph) in St. Louis: I hear absolutely no semblance of compassion in the speaker. Does she believe this homeless people have chosen this way of living? Does she think their belongings, of which they obviously have little, do not have precious meaning to them?

SCHATZ: I don't deny that they do. What I am saying is that we need to address those that because of addiction and/or mental illness cannot take care of themselves. And having them remain on the street with their belongings is not a solution that benefits them or anyone else in the community in which they are living. And that's my point. This is everybody's problem. More has to be done to provide services, and we have to make some hard choices and they...

CONAN: Hard choices that...

SCHATZ: About how to bring them inside.

CONAN: About involuntary incarceration effectively, or involuntary medication.

SCHATZ: Well, I'm not talking about incarceration here. I'm talking about services that will assist them in taking their medication so that they can be healthier. And that is something that we think is important. But the point is that services need to be provided, more money needs to be spent. Those that can be housed in long-term situations need to be housed, but we need to have a real, thorough dialogue with all of the parties to say, what are we going to do with this particular population so that they can get better? And they can't get better if they're living on the street.

CONAN: Carol Schatz, as you also know, none of that is going to happen quickly. You're expecting a court injunction within the next couple of weeks, as you say. What are your members going to do?

SCHATZ: Well, we are, like everything else about our lives here, we, you know, we'll wait and see what happens. We expect the, you know, we don't - we're not looking - we're not expecting a miracle here, and we are hoping that the city - if the three-judge panel basically supports the injunction as it's currently stated, we hope this will be a appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

CONAN: So this could go on for quite some time. In the meantime, nothing's likely to happen...

SCHATZ: That is correct.

CONAN: And as you point out, the businesses are - well, their business is affected and that they have to spend money to protect their own customers.

SCHATZ: That is correct. We've had situations where some of these individuals will come into a boutique, grab whatever they can grab. Why? Because they want to resell these items on the street probably because they're feeding an addiction. When they're asked politely to leave, and they are asked politely to leave, they can - they'll often spit at the shop owner. One of our business owners has spent as much money on security because of the aggressive behavior of some of the street dwellers, as he has on rent and one of - another street - another restaurant owner and property owner lost a huge tenant, worth almost $600,000 because of the - because of these conditions.

CONAN: Carol Schatz, thanks very much for your time today.

SCHATZ: Thank you.

CONAN: Carol Schatz of the Central City Administration of Los Angeles. We posted a link to her op-ed at our website, at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, the news from Syria as a cease-fire collapses and reports of executions in the streets. It's the TALK OF THE NATION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.