City of Santa Monica Is Sued for Its Throwback Policy of Treating Disabled Homeless People as Criminals

July 14, 2009 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The ACLU of Southern California and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP sued the city of Santa Monica today for violating the constitutional rights of chronically homeless people by arresting and harassing them even though the city lacks sufficient shelter space for these homeless persons to sleep. The lawsuit – on behalf of certain homeless residents suffering from mental and physical disabilities – was filed in federal district court in Los Angeles.

Despite its reputation as a liberal bastion with progressive political and social policies, the city of Santa Monica has used its police officers to harass and intimidate disabled homeless residents in recent years, citing or arresting them for sitting or sleeping in public places, and compelling them to “move on” to other cities.

“It’s not only illegal but callous and inhumane for any city to have its police officers cite, arrest and harass mentally ill or physically disabled homeless persons, even as it fails to provide them with sufficient shelter space. But it’s particularly shocking and hypocritical in Santa Monica, which touts itself on its website as a ‘forward-thinking, caring community,'” said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU/SC.

Santa Monica is the third city to be sued by the ACLU/SC in recent months for criminalizing chronically homeless people – those who have mental or physical disabilities and have been homeless repeatedly or for an extended period of time. The ACLU/SC previously sued Laguna Beach and Santa Barbara, and reached a settlement with the city of Laguna Beach last month.

“What these communities have in common is an effort to criminalize the chronically homeless by making homelessness and mental illness crimes, and then driving homeless persons to other communities,” Rosenbaum said. “Among these three cities, however, Santa Monica stands out for the hostility of its police toward chronically disabled homeless people. Santa Monica is functionally operating a deportation program against its mentally disabled homeless, acting to eliminate the homeless, not homelessness.”

One such man, a recovering addict, was arrested by Santa Monica police for sleeping at 4 a.m. just outside a local homeless shelter where there were no available beds. He showed the police his employee badge and pleaded to be permitted to go to his job. The police responded that there was a city policy to arrest anyone sleeping in public, handcuffed him and jailed him for two days. Afterward he was fired from his job.

A chronically homeless woman who is a paranoid schizophrenic and believes spaceships are trying to kill her has been arrested and jailed at least three times by Santa Monica police officers for “camping” on city streets. Repeatedly, police have told her to “move on.” As a result she currently sleeps on a sidewalk near Venice Beach.

The Santa Monica city website estimates that there are about 915 homeless people in the city on a given day. Meanwhile, Santa Monica has only about 180 beds in shelters for short-term stays of up to six months, and only about 45 shelter beds that are available to mentally ill homeless, accommodating less than 20 percent of the population.

According to a 2006 report by the Urban Institute, 94 percent of Santa Monica’s homeless population suffers from mental illness, substance abuse or both – a percentage far higher than anywhere else in the country.

“If you strip away the rhetoric of city officials, it’s clear that Santa Monica is doing less for the chronically homeless than it was 10 years ago,” said Jennie Pasquarella, a staff attorney for the ACLU/SC. “Yet the daily cost of providing a chronically homeless person permanent supportive housing is a fraction of the daily cost of arresting and incarcerating a homeless person. It’s time for Santa Monica to acknowledge reality and show the kind of leadership on providing services for the homeless that would make it truly deserving of the description ‘forward-thinking.'”

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