ACLU: Anaheim's Anti-Homeless Crackdown Legally "Disingenuous"

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The Anaheim City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last week that imposes a ban on camping in parks and other public spaces while allowing for the confiscation of property deemed "abandoned" and $40,000 for the early opening of the Fullerton Armory Emergency Shelter during the winter to show they're not complete assholes. "We need to find a long-term solution," Mayor Tom Tait cautioned, adding, "I'd like to call that initiative 'Coming Home Anaheim,'" acknowledging that the move effectively pushes homeless out of the city.

For the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the short-term solution leaves much to be desired. "I was really disappointed that this ordinance passed," says Heather Johnson, staff attorney for ACLU of Southern California. "We will be monitoring what happens in Anaheim. Criminalization measures have been found to violate homeless persons' civil [and] human rights and there have been some successful cases on those grounds."

The attorney heads the ACLU's newly launched Dignity for All Project which will advocate for expanding access to emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing, and medical care while opposing policies that criminalize homelessness.

There are a number of strong, local legal precedents to keep in mind in terms of what Anaheim is attempting to do. First, Johnson notes, is Jones v. City of Los Angeles where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that criminalizing sleeping in public when there is no shelter space available is in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

"It seems disingenuous that they have explicitly allowed homeless people to sleep with a blanket but not with a sleeping bag," the ACLU attorney says of Anaheim's homeless nuances. "It does seem like they have drafted this law to make it harder to challenge."

Then there is Lavan v. City of Los Angeles where the Ninth Circuit held that the city of Los Angeles violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of homeless persons on Skid Row by seizing and destroying their personal property that had not been abandoned, but simply left behind temporarily while they ate, showered or used a restroom.

"Under the wording of the Anaheim ordinance they don't provide a lot of guidance on what constitutes abandoned property," Johnson says. "That is a major concern. It will be really interesting to see how the Anaheim Police Department implements and enforces this law. That will determine how much it will impact homeless individuals and the viability of a constitutional challenge."

Prior to the ordinance's attempted introduction back in September, Anaheim police had already coached city staff over homeless issues. In an August 21, 2013 email obtained by the Weekly, Anaheim Police Captain Julian Harvey summarized for the city council and mayor his response to a resident complaint about homeless gathering in La Palma Park. "I...explained the PD is working with the City Attorney's Office to craft ordinances aimed at eliminating blight by homeless in parks and public spaces."

For her part, Johnson expressed concerns to a city staffer, who said they would be passed on to the City Attorney's office. She did not have any direct contact with Michael Houston or anyone else before last week's vote.

The ordinance in question will be implemented with a grace period of thirty days after the opening of the Fullerton Armory Emergency Shelter in early November. The seasonal facility only has 200 beds. A count by the Anaheim Poverty Task Force last January noted that there were 447 'unsheltered' homeless persons in the city alone, the majority not tallied at La Palma Park.

Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @dpalabraz

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