I’m glad to see that in many places, we are entering a new era, a time when there is increasing pressure on government leaders not only to come up with more effective ways to help the homeless, but also to abate nuisance.
In too many areas, for too long, there was been a “wild west” approach to homelessness, which has both failed the desperately needy, as well as failed communities and neighborhoods plagued by the problems associated with illegal encampments.
The homeless have been failed when cities have refused to engage in necessary efforts to shelter those without shelter — such as by offering too little shelter, or offering it in a way that is too burdensome. For instance, standard shelters which are only open at night, or which do not allow the homeless to bring in their pets or belongings, leaving them with an impossible hurdle in obtaining comfortable shelter from the elements — they can only do so by giving up their pet or their belongings.
The homeless have been failed when they have been offered shelter but no or inadequate assistance in finding housing, or a job, or help with their mental illness or substance abuse.
And the housed living in neighborhoods have been failed when city leaders, ignoring the homeless, sit passively by and allow large squalid encampments to exist within or very close to residential neighborhoods, parks or businesses — or really anywhere where they create problems.
For too long, many cities have been content to take the same old approaches that fail to change anything about the homeless problem all over city streets. Quite possibly if we were not seeing the explosion in numbers of homeless that we see now in large West Coast cities, these same futile approaches would continue. In order for the situation to really shift, cities need to be less passive, as well as less inclined to pointlessly repeatedly extend the same offers of help to people who refuse help or services.
As the homeless situation develops into more of a crisis, and cities struggle with larger problems, attorneys representing the homeless are increasingly taking cases to court, seeking to carve out rights for the homeless, such as I describe here. This attempt to clarify the rights of the homeless will not only benefit the homeless themselves, but will also benefit everyone else, as it will assist cities in understanding the best approaches they can take and developing strategies which both provide help to the needy, and prevent the needy (or the mentally ill or substance abusers) from creating nuisance and trouble for others in the community.
What I’ve seen among some homeless, in their views on the evolution of this issue, clarifies to me a suspicion I have had as I’ve observed the shift in this issue over time. My suspicion has been that a good number of homeless are less interested in being helped to obtain temporary shelter and/or permanent housing in an appropriate place where they can afford to live, than in having the freedom to camp wherever they please, and being enabled to live a rent-free, drug-fueled life free from government interference — or in expecting to all be handed 100% rent-free housing for the rest of their lives in the city of their choice.
As the homeless crisis escalates, cities are thankfully being forced to get smarter about how they handle this problem. Unlike what some of the homeless imagine, the courts are not likely to carve out rights for anyone to show up in any city in the US, and try to extort the city by saying that if they aren’t given free housing there for the rest of their life, they will create serial nuisance in the streets. The method of obtaining housing by holding the city hostage to nuisance behavior, is not likely to win out, in the long run.
In San Francisco, for instance, as this article indicates, the new mayor has begun to get smart about just this kind of nuisance, and is showing some backbone and articulating limits that need to be set. In Los Angeles county as well, mayor Garcetti has indicated that if a given city or district allows a homeless shelter to be built in its area, the mayor will guarantee that encampments will not be tolerated in that area. These are smart moves, and unlike the overly passive approach to this problem that we have seen for decades.
There are some homeless, for instance, who will endlessly repeat the mantra that they have the “right to reject all services” and a civil right to live wherever they please in city streets. It’s true that government cannot force services on anyone against their will, and it’s also true that people have a court-supported “right to travel” and be indigent in places where they cannot actually afford to live. However, the right to camp in public places is not absolute. As far as I am aware, courts have clarified that people only have the right to camp in public places to the extent that (1) either there is not adequate shelter available for them, or (2) they are traveling and need to rest in their vehicle. Even when they have a right to sleep in public places, this does not imply a right to set up a permanent camp in any given place — it only means they can sleep at night in public places. Hence, a city would be entirely within its rights to prohibit anyone setting up a tent anywhere in the city during daytime hours, eg, between the hours of 7 or 8 am and 9 or 10pm, which Berkeley’s new proposed regulations seem to indicate it will give itself the right to do. In limiting the right of homeless to sleep in public places during night time hours only, (especially if in combination with offering 24/7 storage locker facilities to the homeless) cities could quite easily prohibit all entrenched homeless encampments, because it would become illegal to leave a tent up in any given place for more than 8 to 10 hrs at a time.
As well, cities could easily prohibit all sleeping/camping in certain areas, as Berkeley’s proposed regulations would also seem to do with regard to residential neighborhoods. It seems very appropriate that homeless camps/sleeping in public places should never be allowed in residential neighborhoods due to the violation involved and the invasion of others’ private space that is involved in such impositions. Limiting sleeping in public places to commercial or industrial districts is very reasonable.
Though many homeless activists and advocates have been pleading for more help for the homeless, I think that along with the increase in truly valuable and common sense help that will be provided by more cities, we will gradually (and thankfully) see an end to the “wild west” era of people being enabled to create serial nuisance in cities, through too-passive city responses to homeless encampments.
Some of the problems associated with homeless and/or homeless camps are very serious, as indicated in this article.
In Berkeley in particular, police spend an inordinate amount of time responding to calls having to do with mentally ill individuals, and the percentage of homeless with substance abuse or mental illness is higher in Berkeley than in the rest of the nation, as revealed in this article.
As well, simply housing the homeless does not necessarily solve the problems that some of the homeless population bring to neighborhoods, as shown in this article about a New York neighborhood. In this NY neighborhood, residents of a homeless shelter spend their days on the sidewalk nearby, creating a problem for area residents.
I will attempt to gather documents from notable court cases having to do with homeless related issues, such as: (1) sleeping in public places, (2) large encampments in public places, (3) living in vehicles on public streets (4) sitting or lying on public sidewalks, (5) seizure of belongings of homeless persons. A summary of rights of homeless persons appears at the end of this article.
The Imbalance of Justice. It’s Not What You Think.
One of the very serious problems of our “Justice System” is that justice is not equally dispensed. Those who have more money, typically get more “justice.” So, injustice is heavily built into the so-called “Justice System”, which really should often be called, “The Seriously Unjust System.”
But there’s another angle to this which many people don’t realize. It may seem to many that the only losers in the justice system are the poor, who cannot afford justice. Actually though if you look at the “big picture”, quite often the biggest losers are the middle class.
Because while on the one hand the wealthy are able to buy justice through their much greater ability to pay for expensive attorney fees and court fees, the other thing that many miss (but which we will often see in cases having to do with homelessness) is that the pooroften receive free legal aid or pro bono (completely free) legal representation, in a select few situations (usually situations representative of large populations, which, when case precedent is set, may benefit large populations) touching on issues important to the poor.
Of course, not all the poor receive such help, and it’s fair to say that most do not. But the fact that they do — as a group — have such free legal aid available as well as the possibility of free representation throughout a long trial (which can result in costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars, to those who would have to pay for it), means that actually in some situations/circumstances, the poor receive a greater advantage in the “Justice System” than the middle class, in many cases.
This is true for instance when a low income tenant is up against a middle class, small landlord in an eviction case in cities where there are legal aid groups which offer free aid to low income tenants. Hence in those cases, the middle class landlord actually receives less justice and is more disadvantaged than their low income tenant, as the landlord is forced to pay legal and court fees, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars in some cases, to evict a tenant even for something as basic as nonpayment of rent. At the same time, that tenant not only pays no rent, they pay nothing for the legal aid they receive, and when they finally depart the premises, it is quite likely they will never pay for several months of rent they owe the landlord.
That greater justice may go to the poor, than to the middle class, is also true in some cases having to do with homeless issues. Defending the homeless is a popular issue with social justice attorneys, and so many cases pertaining to homeless camp evictions or rights of the homeless, or seizure of their belongings, are being taken on pro bono by organizations interested in doing social justice work. Of course assisting the poor or the homeless is a compassionate and worthy endeavor. But a problem arises when groups of homeless people who are causing continual nuisance to neighborhoods and communities, are receiving free legal aid and free legal representation, while the middle class residents of those communities, cannot afford to take legal action, as — unlike the homeless — they would be required to pay for it. And this would cost them tens of thousands of dollars at minimum — and possibly hundreds of thousands, if their case was not simple and got involved with many motions and complex issues.
Hence, the difficulty with creating law on homeless issues through court cases, is that while attorneys and law firms are often representing homeless individuals on a pro bono basis, this is not the case for housed city residents.
City residents who are negatively impacted by large homeless camps, illegal camping in the streets, or other serious problems related to homeless and vagrants, do not get free legal representation to go to court over their concerns.
Hence, while the “rights” of the homeless may be expanded through court cases, the “rights” of housed residents to be free from serious nuisance, to demand that their cities abate nuisance, to not lose their city parks as these gradually become de facto homeless camps, are not equally protected by legal advocates. Unless cities themselves act on behalf of the interest of housed residents, the housed residents would have to invest enormous amounts of time and money to fight serious nuisance. This is more than most can afford to do.
And many hard-working, housed residents are angered that cities are essentially “solving” the homeless problem on our backs, by failing to abate nuisance, by tolerating homeless camps even when they are in very inappropriate places such as residential neighborhoods, by failing to enforce no camping in vehicles laws, by failing even to enforce parking laws in ways that might assist in the removal of nuisance campers from residential streets.
Some cities, such as Venice and Oakland, have failed to abate serious nuisance, leading citizens to contemplate whether a lawsuit is the only recourse left for them to deal with the serious problems overtaking their neighborhoods. For instance, the court case Ryavec vs City of Venice, described in this article, a Venice resident working with others in his community has had to raise funds to sue his city over its failure to curtail the nuisance caused by homeless vagrants at Venice Beach.
Are Laws meant to Apply Only to the Housed? Do the Homeless Get a Free Pass and Not Have to follow any laws?
Another aspect of the “injustice” of the Justice System, was raised in a recent article in a local media. The story had to do with the city of Berkeley’s move to evict a long-standing nuisance — an illegal RV camp which had existed for 1.5 years at the Berkeley Marina, in spite of the fact that those residing in vehicles at the camp were breaking at least 5 laws and up to 9 different city and state laws.
The homeless RV dwellers were nearly unanimously declaring that since they were poor and “homeless”, they were exempt from having to follow the laws that everyone else had to follow. Now they have a point as far as the truism of this saying by Anatole France:
The fact is (as we shall see in examining case law to follow) that when you have nowhere to sleep or take shelter, you doobtain certain rights to shelter in public places, irrespective of whether a city has attempted to prohibit this. In fact, what case law on this issue clarifies, is that it is prohibited for cities or any government entity to “criminalize someones’ status“, in this case, to criminalize the status of being homeless. Homelessness itself may not be turned into a crime.
By contrast, governments may prohibit or criminalize certain behaviors, which are not identical to status. Discerning what regulations address behavior only and not status, and which would criminalize an entire status, has been the work of the courts.
What this means, in practical terms, is that while it is prohibited for cities to ban all camping in public ifthere is no other place for homeless to take shelter, once there are other places for the homeless to take shelter, the cities maygo ahead and ban all camping in public places. The ability and right of the government entity to ban camping in public places is entirely contingent upon the availability of other shelter. In order for a city’s ban on camping in public places by virtue of offering other shelter to be legal, such alternate shelter may not be of a nature which excludes anyone based on their status (eg, no males, no married couples, no one with mental illness, no one who doesn’t want to receive Christian indoctrination).
As well, as we shall see, cities are on completely legal ground when they ban or prohibit camping in certain designated areas, while not imposing a complete ban on camping in public. This means that a city has a right to close down one homeless camp, in a specific area, perhaps because that camp became problematic. The right to take shelter in some public place, does not imply and does not create an inherent right to take shelter in any public place whatsoever. Many homeless and their advocates appear to not comprehend this distinction, as they are fond of declaring that any removal of any homeless camp is unconstitutional. This is not true.
The issue of to what extent the homeless or the poor are exempt from the same laws that everyone else is obligated to follow, is one of particular interest not only to the homeless themselves, but also to housed residents who may be really tired of being told by the police that “there is nothing we can do” when a family of homeless people is living in a vehicle in front of their home, or camped in a tent next to the tiny tot playground at the local park. We standard middle class housed residents are also often angered by the fact that while people living in vehicles seem to be able to get away with parking law violations right and left, we seem to never be exempt from parking regulations, and in fact as one commenter put it, “Only a couple minutes after the meter has expired, the meter maid swoops in and tickets me. Discrimination in enforcement. Right to equal enforcement.”
There’s a need for every human being to have adequate shelter. But there is also a need to protect residential neighborhoods, city parks, sidewalks and streets from being turned into slums and squalid campgrounds.
So let’s look at what case law has been formed on homeless related issues and see where there is a need for much more clarification, and indeed, much more justice.
One of the reasons that I believe the court ordered the city to stop in its attempt to evict the encampment, was that it was using, as basis for the eviction, a city law which prohibited all camping in public places except for those designated for camping. This left these homeless persons no real options for other places to go. Had they simply sought to evict the camp dwellers without citing this (likley unconstitutional) city ordinance, or without prohibiting them from camping elsewhere, they likely would have succeeded.
In the case Acosta vs City of Salinas, by contrast with the case in Eureka, the homeless plaintiffs in that case lost their plea for a temporary restraining order stopping the city from evicting their encampment.
To prevail on their motion, Plaintiffs must make a showing that the application of Ordinance 2567 (an emergency ordinance allowing city to remove homeless persons property from public property) as to them in specified circumstances violates the United States Constitution. Tobe, 9 Cal.4th at 1084. To do so, Plaintiffs must provide specific facts to show how the City’s implementation of Ordinance 2567 has denied them a protected right.
In this case, the judge stated that the plaintiffs did not show evidence of specific injuries or harm to themselves, but simply made “broad statements about harm to third parties.”
In the case City of North Bend vs Joseph Bradshaw, a judge in a municipal court in Washington found that a city’s law against any sleeping/camping in a public place, violated the “fundamental right to travel and cruel and unusual punishment clauses of the US Constitution” in that “they prohibit engaging in sleeping activities and making preparations to sleep on any public property.”
Again, it is important to note the difference between prohibiting any and all camping or sleeping in any public place (which is unconstitutional) versus evicting a specific camp or prohibiting sleeping or camping in any specific place.
In a court case in Los Angeles, Jones vs Los Angeles, the decision was that the city of Los Angeles could not prohibit people from sitting, lying or sleeping on the sidewalk.
Challenge to Los Angeles’ ban on living in vehicles; Desertrain v. Los Angeles — outcome was that Los Angeles may not have a total ban on living in vehicles throughout the city. This was considered unconstitutionally vague. (result was that after the ruling, Los Angeles changed the law to ban living in vehicles in residential areas and some other designated areas, and allows living in vehicles only in some commercial and industrial areas).
A new case has been filed in federal court, where the city of Sacramento is accused of violating rights of homeless to panhandle in the city, as the new city ordinance “bans soliciting within 30 feet of ATMs or banks, at driveway entrances to businesses or near bus stops.” http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/homeless/article208595844.html
I will be interested to see the outcome of this case. Courts have recently tended to view begging as a form of “free speech” and protected it along those lines, as is described in the case described here, Reed vs Town of Gilbert:
This case established that people have a fundamental “right to travel” in the US, even if indigent, even if they have no place to stay, even if they are traveling in places where they can’t afford to live. So it supports the essential “right” of people to be homeless and take shelter in public places. See commentary on this right to travel and the implications of the Edwards case, here: https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1869&context=californialawreview
Again though, the fact that people have this right to travel, does not translate to their being free to camp anywhere and everywhere. It does not mean that cities cannot prohibit camping in any particular place. However, the implications of this right on camping in public places and on cities’ obligations to those who are homeless or who are camping in their public places, is not fully clear. More needs to be done to delineate the rights and obligations here.
Summary of some key rulings:
A summary of important cases involving anti-camping ordinances:
Tanudjaha vs Canada is not a US case, but a Canadian case,but it has some interest and possible bearing/guidance on US law. The outcome was that the government is not responsible for providing adequate housing or adequate affordable housing to prevent individuals from becoming homeless.
After many months of living in RVs, trailers, trucks, vans and other vehicles along Marina Blvd at the Berkeley Marina, vehicle dwellers there received notice this week that they will need to move out, or they’ll be towed out.
An article in Berkeleyside provided this news. See here:
In addition, the City of Berkeley apparently clarified that they will now begin enforcing the law on the books that prohibits parking any RV or Commercial sized vehicle on the city streets during the hours 2am to 5am. This means that these RV dwellers at the Marina will not be able to just move elsewhere in Berkeley to live on the streets, and it means that other informal “RV camps” on the streets in Berkeley may be removed.
This is good news, since as anyone who has visited the Berkeley Marina over the past year has observed, nearly the entire Marina has been in danger of becoming a giant homeless encampment. There have been not only 10-20 RVs parked along Marina Blvd across from the Double Tree Hotel, but also, people also living in vehicles in every parking lot at the Marina. This has been a disturbing situation for anyone going there for recreation, which is the point of a park area. It has also been a serious concern for the owner of the Double Tree hotel, which not surprisingly has had many complaints from its guests. Who would book a hotel located across from a large homeless camp? Doubtless that vehicle dwellers need someplace to go, but it was wrong for the city of Berkeley to allow these RV dwellers to stay there for the many months that they’ve been there.
As well, there is at least one other business at the Berkeley Marina that’s been negatively impacted by RV dwellers. The Hs. Lordships restaurant has apparently voiced many complaints to the city of Berkeley and the Berkeley Marina, about the multiple vehicle dwellers in the parking lot immediately in front of this restaurant — between ShoreBird Park and the restaurant. This parking lot does not belong to the restaurant, it is the property of the City and the Berkeley Marina, so the restaurant is powerless to do anything about the many people who have set up permanent camp just in front of their business. I counted at least 15 RVs and vans that were apparently being used as dwellings in this parking lot, in early April 2018.
Looks very much like a big RV park in the restaurant parking lot:
But the city’s concern and notice to vacate and intent to enforce laws, seems to have been focused on those living in RVs along Marina Blvd, not those in the Hs Lordships parking lot.
The two news articles on this issue also note that:
“Police handed out warning notices to roughly 20 RVs this weekend.” — reporter
“At one point up to 70 RVs were camping at the Berkeley Marina…” — news reporter
“A number of people in boats and otherwise have reported break ins…” — City spokesman
“Very glad that the city and the harbor has finally supported all of our requests to get these people to move on” — Marina boat owner
“They received dozens of complaints from nearby businesses and the people living on boats at the Marina” —-reporter
“I’ve noticed different jugs of urine around the trash cans” — Marina boat owner
“There are loose pit bulls…we used to be able to walk our dogs in the beautiful meadows over there. I dont’ dare go over there any more.” —Marina boat owner
The enforcement of parking rules at the Marina is part of ongoing efforts to address increasing reports of criminal activity and health and safety issues in the area, Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said Thursday.
“We’ve had break-ins of cars. Visitors and staff have been physically assaulted and verbally threatened. Those who have berths at the Marina reported multiple and increasing numbers of altercations and threats — particularly from people living in these vehicles,” Chakko said. “Restaurants and hotels there reported an increasing number of customer complaints in respect to vehicles there overnight. We’ve had mothers complaining that their small children are dodging between needles” in the parking lots, he said.”
There are at least 6 and up to 10 different laws that these campers on Marina Blvd have been breaking for many months. Several of those laws are noted on this sign that the Waterfront Agency suggested the city post all around the Marina:
(1) The 72 hr parking law, Berkeley Municipal Code section 14.36.050 and 6.20.250
(2) The prohibition on parking RVs or large vehicles on city streets from 2am to 5am, Berkeley Municipal Code section 14.40.120
(3) Berkeley Municipal Code 6.20.255It is unlawful for the operator of any vehicle to stop, stand, park, or leave standing such vehicle, except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with the direction of a police officer or other authorized officer, or traffic sign or signal, on Seawall Drive, Spinnaker Way,Marina Boulevardand University Avenue between Frontage Road and Seawall Drive. (bolding added)
[* * *] B. All other vehicles and trailers not defined as heavy duty commercial or over-sized vehicles in subsection A above are prohibited from parking in the above areas between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. daily.
(4) Eating, sleeping and camping prohibited in waterfront areas BMC 6.20.250
(5) No repairs to vehicles in waterfront areas BMC 6.20250
(6) Parking of houses, truck trailers and other vehicles over 21 ft not allowed in city lots BMC 6.24.170, 6.24.180, 6.24.190
(7) city parks closed to the public 10pm to 6am BMC 6.32.020
(8) The prohibition on using a camper for human habitation in the city, Berkeley Municipal Code section 12.76.020 (this law is currently not being enforced as the LA court ruling pertaining to this issue suggests that total bans on living in vehicles anywhere in a city may be unconstitutional)
(9) Disposal of garbage in places not permitted, Berkeley Municipal Code section 12.32.070
(10) Prohibition on storing inoperable vehicles on public land (some of the RVs have been stated to be inoperable) Berkeley Municipal Code section 12.98.020
That Berkeley is indicating a commitment to actively enforce Section 14.40.120 of the Municipal Code, is good news for those who are burdened by the nuisance of RV dwellers and people living in other large vehicles in their neighborhoods. This does not solve the whole problem of vehicle dwelling on city streets, since most of those living in vehicles on city streets, do not live in RVs or large vehicles, but rather in vans or smaller vehicles which are not restricted by this municipal code. Yet the law addresses the most problematic vehicles, since it’s the larger vehicles which generally are of most concern to neighborhoods. Under the language of the code, any vehicle 20 ft or longer, or wider than 6 ft 6 inches, would be prohibited from parking on city streets from 2am to 5am.
It will be interesting to watch and see how this issue unfolds in various neighborhoods and with regard to certain problematic vehicles. I predict that if any given vehicle or situation becomes sufficiently problematic, the city will eventually address the problem, but there seems at this time to be little ability to do more than continue to play the whack-a-mole game of simply moving the problem from one location to another. Unfortunately such time-wasting and ultimately pointless ways of addressing this ongoing problem have a deleterious effect on morale of police officers, among others. A recent Op-Ed in Berkeleyside indicated that many Berkeley Police officers are not interested in being turned into highly paid “homeless social workers” and are looking for work in other cities where their skills can be more appropriately used. I don’t blame them.
One of the commenters on the Berkeleyside article mentioned the group “BusPatch” which is organizing people to rent lots in the Bay Area as communal places for vehicle dwellers to live. http://buspatch.com
UPDATE APRIL 15 2018:
Two weeks after giving notice to the RV dwellers on Marina Blvd to vacate that area, there are still at least 15 RVs still there, so it is not clear what the city’s plan is for this situation. As well, there are still about 15 to 20 vehicle dwellers in the Berkeley Marina parking lot in front of the Hs Lordships restaurant, and it’s not clear if any of those were asked to leave that area. Theoretically if the focus was only on those living on Marina Blvd, we could see them all migrating to the parking lot in front of Hs Lordships, so that upward of 30 vehicle dwellers could end up in that parking lot.
As well, as far as the city of Berkeley intending to enforce BMC 14.40.120 which prohibits RVs from parking on any city street for more than an hour from 2am to 5am — I will believe it when I see it. Unfortunately I think what’s likely to happen is more of the whack-a-mole game of spending a lot of time and energy just moving a problem from one location to another, with no effective way to really address the problem and come up with a solution.
As mentioned in a previous article, the City of Berkeley Waterfront Commission voted unanimously to request the city to enforce existing laws at the Berkeley Marina, laws mentioned above. This should not be difficult to do.
If nothing else, the city should be able to use the annual Berkeley Kite Festival (July 28-29 2018) in order to get these RVs out of the area…. parking regulations for the Kite Festival apparently do not permit any parking along any roadside during the festival, including Marina Blvd.
UPDATE May 18 2018:
Two months after giving them notice that they have to leave the area, the RV dwellers have not left Marina Blvd. The city of Berkeley has now given them another notice, stating that it will be doing construction from May 28 to June 1 in this area, in preparation for a festival at Cesar Chavez Park during this time, when parking in the area is changed to fee parking.
Interestingly, in the article, homeless advocate and attorney Osha Neumann is trying to exploit a law about homesteading, in order to fight for the RV dwellers to be able to stay where they are, arguing that they’ve stayed so long in the area that they are now legally homesteaders. This takes us back to a point made in this Op-Ed in Berkeleyside a while back, where it was argued that many of these so-called “homeless” are actually homesteaders.
I think it’s pretty clear that these vagrants/squatters and bums will use whatever terminology is most advantageous to them politically. The city should really do a study to find out how many of the “homeless” are truly homeless, compared to how many are lazy bums, freeloaders and spongers trying to live for free on public land.
The few people (mostly men) who live in this land of spectacular beauty, in Kalalau Valley, Hawaii, live as do many of the “homeless” in our urban centers and American towns — they camp illegally in the woods, trying to hide themselves and avoid detection and park rangers who would throw them out. But they probably dont’ consider themselves “homeless.” Some of them have lived there for many years. Rather than feeling like peripheral figures or social failures, they feel in many cases like they are living a dream, living in paradise. Those were the exact words used by one of the squatters, named Billy Guy.
As described in this Smithsonian article, “squatters” have lived in this valley for about 50 years, and yet patience is now wearing thin and rangers are increasingly moving to evict them.
Since at least the 1960s, the Kalalau Valley has been a magnet for long-haired hippies, crystal-stroking New Agers, deodorant-free backpackers, and others seeking a spiritual awakening—or at least a good place to skinny dip. During the Vietnam War, a group of draft dodgers and disillusioned veterans living in tree houses at the end of the paved road on the north coast realized that it would be the perfect place to grow marijuana in the summers.
It was the peak of counterculture activity, but as the years wore on idealism smacked into the messiness of society. This haven transformed from an idyllic retreat to a millennial party zone and an occasional pirate’s lair, and right now tolerance is wearing thin. After a local woman was killed when her car was hit by a fugitive named Cody Safadago who had spent some time in Kalalau last spring, the state launched a crackdown to clean out the squatters. They ticketed a total of 34 people last year and took at least one man out in handcuffs. Barca escaped unscathed. “I fucking live here and I know which way to run,” he says. “It’s my house and you’re not going to get somewhere in my house faster than I am.”
The Hawaiian state government bought the property in 1974, and tried to evict the squatters before establishing the park in 1979, but they came back. They always come back.
“We were free-minded people looking for a better place to live without the restrictions of society,” says Billy Guy, who first visited Kalalau after serving as an army medic during the Vietnam War and has returned for long stretches over the decades. “I’m fulfilling a dream.”
Though this story of squatters in public land has an upbeat tone, in other situations where there are people living illegally on public lands, the situation is more concerning, and hikers and recreationalists sometimes fear for their safety, as in this story where hikers in coastal mountains near LA met homeless squatters who confronted them with knives and machetes:
In June, deputies with the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station responded to a call from hikers who said vagrants in a makeshift encampment near the Gould Mesa campground confronted them with knives and machetes. By the time authorities arrived on scene, the camp had been vacated.
Nancy Rose lives in El Monte and boards her horse at the Rose Bowl Riders club in Hahamongna Watershed Park. She said she’s stopped using the Gabrielino Trail.
“I don’t feel safe anymore,” she said, describing fires, human feces and untethered dogs that spook horses. “It’s really not fair to the public to have something like that happening — and nobody’s doing anything.”
Often when we look at the problem of homelessness in cities in the United States, homeless advocates, city leaders, and others will view the cause of the problem as insufficient government and social support for the poor and those struggling with problems like mental illness, disability, substance abuse, job loss, loss of housing, serious health issues, or wages too low to pay for housing. Then, things often seem brighter on the other side of the Atlantic, where, in Europe, we imagine that countries which have better safety nets, more social and economic support for the poor, would naturally deal much better with these issues and as a result, not have homelessness.
Yet, there is homelessness in “welfare states” or nations with more of a strong collective structure to support the poor — such as Denmark. Denmark is sometimes cited as the nation with the “happiest people on earth”, and it’s the culture from whence derives the particularly delightful cultural aspect of “hygge” which has become better known in the US as of the last year.
Actually, neither Denmark nor the other Nordic or Scandinavian nations which provide support for their citizens’ basic needs, are truly “socialist” countries. In her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, Anu Partanen explains the frustration and impatience that Finns have with their country being labelled “Socialist.” “Every time I hear an American refer to Finland as a socialist country, I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 1950’s….our nation fought three brutal wars against socialism in the 20th century to protect our freedom, independence, and free-market system.”
Her book is actually a superb one, which has much to offer in terms of guidance to the powers that be in the USA, on how we could collectively produce a happier society where people actually experienced freedom and independence. Her view after growing up in Finland and then moving to America, is that while America is extolled for values of freedom and independence, we dont’ have much of either, because of the lack of support for basic needs, which leads us to live lives filled with fear that we might fall through the cracks. According to Anu, abour 46% of American women fear that they might become homeless, even women with incomes over $100k a year. This is because our society is so badly structured, where people can end up in huge debt for medical expenses even when they have health insurance, where there is inadequate support for the jobless or poor, or the elderly or disabled, where people stay in jobs they hate because they are overly dependent on health insurance from employers, which should instead be coming from the government.
In any case, in spite of the marvelous security systems in place in Nordic nations, people still end up homeless there, which provides some important suggestions about what causes homelessness and what helps solve it.
Some of the conclusions of that article’s author’s study about homelessness in Denmark are as follows:
Homelessness is the culmination of a series of defeats over one’s lifetime rather than the result of a single event.
Homelessness is not a housing or financial problem, but a condition generally caused by a lack of social competencies.
The homeless population is continually exposed to social demands and expectations to which they are not prepared to respond. They may not have the capabilities to fulfill cultural norms, such as maintaining a job or constantly displaying motivation and stability.
Note the interesting conclusion that homelessness is NOT a housing or financial problem. That this conclusion was drawn in one place, suggests it is probably true in other places, since human dynamics are similar around the globe. Though one certainly couldn’t say that homelessness is never caused by housing or financial problems, I think this study does suggest that even if people are given governmental support of an essentially socialist “welfare state”, they could still end up homeless if they have no social competence.
This article on homelessness in Denmark indicates that as in America, people with mental illness or substance abuse issues are likely to end up homeless regardless how much help their society provides:
The Copenhagen Post reported that, similar to many other western nations, the homeless in Denmark tend to suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness.
One of Denmark’s street people is Henrik ‘Popeye’ Jørgensen, who at age 50 has been homeless for more than half of his life.
“I get angry at myself, thinking about the bad choices I have made in my life,” he told the Post.
The Danish government has provided apartments for some homeless people, in order to give them some sense of stability. But the policy does not work for everyone.
“If you are put in an apartment with bare walls, you feel isolated with no one to talk to, and you go back onto the street,” said Poul Strove Nielsen, the editor of Hus Forbi, a street newspaper, according to the Post.
This quote also supports the sense that some observers of the homeless dilemma in the US have obtained, that many people are on the street largely because there is a certain “street culture” that they seek, which they find there.
A 2015 article indicated that homelessness is actually rising in Denmark, and is highest among young people (whom one would think would be least likely to have issues such as disability or illness which present obstacles to working) and among foreigners.
In fact, in this article, a study apparently found that only 3 out of 44 people sleeping outside in one area studied, were Danish. That’s less than 10% Danish, over 90% of the homeless were foreigners who were in the country illegally.
Problems caused by illegal immigrants have some of the same negative impacts on societies, regardless where in the world they are occurring.
This article indicates that the migrant crisis is leading to more homeless in Nordic nations.
This study on homelessness in Denmark found that homelessness was highest among youth:
About 4 out of 5 homeless people in Denmark has either mental illness, substance
abuse or both. About half have a mental illness, about two thirds have a substance abuse problem and one out of three are mentally ill substance abusers. Only about 1 out of 5 have neither of these problems. The figures are roughly similar for the young homeless people between 18 and 24 years,
Elsewhere, apparently the number of homeless people in Sweden doubled between 2005 and 2011.
One article suggested that, as in the US, some people may be “drawn” to be homeless in certain areas if there are systems there which support that, such as recycling scavenging.
This article has some comparisions between homelessness in the US versus in Denmark.
It should not take a lawsuit for the government to do the right thing, but, in many regions, on the issue of homelessness there has been so much foot dragging and kicking the can (or the tent) down the road so the homeless encampments just become a serial problem, rather than being removed altogether.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has put out a report on the issues of homelessness in cities, and how cities are responding to homelessness, here:
The de facto, “illegal” homeless encampments that sprout up in cities are a problem — both for their residents, who are often housed in shoddy, squalid, garbage-strewn, vermin-filled, crime-filled, insecure, dangerous and essentially uninhabitable conditions, and for the neighborhoods in which these are located, which suffer the many serious problems and degradations of the neighborhood which results from the spread of these camps. HOwever, if we don’t want the camps, we have to provide other places for the people in them to find shelter. And this is where cities, counties, states and (most of all) the federal government are failing badly.
If there are homeless advocacy agencies suing cities and counties over not providing adequate shelter/housing for the homeless, cities and counties should, as I see it, also be suing state and federal governments for not helping enough with this problem, or for failing to address economic disparities which can result in people working full time yet being unable to afford housing.
The Santa Ana River camp in Orange County was finally cleared out of its approximately 700 inhabitants in February 2018. See this news story about the eviction.
Those clearing it found 1000 pounds of human waste and 5000 needles on the site, as mentioned in this article. This photo from the camp points to another problem that often occurs in conjunction with homeless camps — bike theft.
In fact a huge cache of stolen bikes was found at the Santa Ana camp:
Residents of the area near the camp filed a petition with 11,000 signatures, demanding removal of the growing encampment, describing it as a “Mad Max” scene, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, described homeless people stealing from them, casing their neighborhood, and feeling threatened by them and angry about the loss of a recreation area as it was transformed into an illegal squalid homeless camp.
See the story about the residents’ complaint here:
The county sent its inhabitants to hotels with vouchers to stay for 30 days. For many, there is no clarity what happens to them after 30 days.
And again, I believe that the first order of priority for any region, city or county or state government, as well as the federal government, should be coming up with plans first to move people from such camps into temporary shelter (of various kinds) and then into some type of either permanent housing or permanent shelter.
If there is not sufficient space in indoor shelters, then build more indoor shelters, and/or (as the attorney for the homeless argues in this article) set up sanctioned, secure outdoor shelters staffed with city staff to enforce rules and prevent all the problems we see at the squalid camps.
If there are not enough indoor spaces for the homeless, Levine suggests operating outdoor encampments with assigned guards to give residents “more freedom and air. That way, it’s an open and secure area where people could feel comfortable.” .
Lili Graham, director of litigation for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, said she continues to worry for her homeless clients. She has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the People’s Homeless Task Force and seven river trail residents, alleging that the county’s sudden eviction of those residents is discriminatory because it denies them access to county benefits because of their disabilities.
The lawsuit maintains that Orange County has nearly $700 million in unspent funds available to end homelessness, including $146 million for housing vouchers, but officials show “a lack of willingness” to implement long-term solutions. “There is so much uncertainty for our clients,” Graham said. “What happens after eviction — and after the motels? There are no answers.”
In fact, this may be what Orange County does — there is talk now (see this article) about setting up large homeless camps in a few places in the County. This plan bothers many residents who say that it’s precisely because Orange County did not have these kinds of social problems (eg,, large numbers of homeless people) that they moved to Orange County instead of living in Los Angeles. Also, commenters make the valid point that many of these homeless people, cannot afford rents in the area, so what is then the long term plan going to be for them?
Residents of cities in Orange County do not want hundreds of homeless people shipped to their nice neighborhoods, as stated in this article.
“I don’t know. They need to put them somewhere, maybe somewhere else in California,” suggested Angela Liu, of Irvine, who owns a legal services company. “I really don’t know where they can go, but Irvine is beautiful and we don’t want to get destroyed.”
One interesting facet of this protest against homeless camps/shelters in Irvine, was that it was spearheaded by Asian groups. In this article, one protester said that to him it seemed like Chinese New Year:
Most protesters arrived in 24 buses chartered from Southern California travel agencies, the culmination of eight days of organizing in Irvine by residents.
“Did you see how we created a presence to keep our neighborhoods safe? Look at those crowds! It was like Chinese New Year,” said Kelvin Hsieh, manager of a high-tech company who signed up to ride the bus and marched with his daughter, fifth-grader Ava.
The Los ANgeles area has the bulk of California’s homeless…as stated in this article
California, indeed, has the highest total homeless population at 134,278, far more than second place New York.
A woman in Oakland, CA made a good point in her investigation of a large homeless camp in that city. When she went to interview people living at the camp in this video
She pointed out that cities are not willing to spend money to provide basic shelter for homeless in their region, but are more than willing to spend money to take care of illegal immigrants. These badly misplaced priorities are surely part of the problem. But another part of the problem, which this video explores, is that it’s become impossible for low income individuals to afford housing in many parts of the US.
When homeless camps and “vagrants” are tolerated (often in cities like San Francisco with reputations for being “tolerant”) then the result can be seriously problematic when the vagrants become increasingly violent and dangerous, as shown in this video about the Haight neighborhood in San Francisco, which has in recent years been overrun by young vagrants:
We may often think that homelessness is a phenomenon most associated with large urban centers in California. But for anyone who visits the small towns in California’s “Emerald Triangle” region (so called because it’s the major marijuana growing region of the state), they are apt to get quite a shock. They may even be afraid to get out of their car.
Garberville and Redway in particular are overrun with homeless vagrants and “trimmigrants” (the local name for vagrants who seek seasonal employment in the marijuana industry, but then can easily end up homeless when the work ends)
A TripAdvisor user who stayed in a hotel in Garberville said that in his view, this town was “The Center of the Universe for Homelessness.”
Another Tripadvisor user found a Garberville hotel parking lot and frontroom both full of drunks and homeless, and witnessed open drug deals.
A longtime Garberville resident recounted an incident in which she literally had to run from her car for safety, when a wild-eyed man ran towards her,
She was just outside the open passenger door when a wild-eyed man ran down the hill with his arms outstretched “like he was flying” from the Veteran’s Park. She says, he was screaming, “Are you going to kill me?” He ran right to the driver’s side of her pickup.
At first, she thought he was going to steal her vehicle. But then as he glared through the window at her, she says she began to be physically afraid. “I felt like he could kill me right now and he wouldn’t even know…It scared the living crap out of me.”
One Garberville businessman, in a newspaper op-ed, asks outright if the town is going to hell, saying that “the effects of the transient population have reached a critical point.”
Garberville business owners described incidents of harassment, health and safety threats and confrontational behavior during the public comment session of the August 27 supervisors meeting.
Blake Lehman, owner of Lehman Real Estate Appraising on Redwood Drive, told supervisors that “I’m sick of watching my community turn into a cesspool — the transient population in Garberville and Redway is completely out of hand.”
As in other areas, homeless camps pose dangers such as fires, which in this case, damaged a nearby structure. An area popular for homeless camps has had drug problems and one unsolved homicide, as reported here. Assaults have occurred at the camps, as described here. Another assault is described here.
The tensions between residents and homeless vagrants is described in this article.
One area resident explores the problem here, and her blog received many comments.
As in other cities, when one camp is cleared out, as described in this article, the vagrants often simply move to another camping spot, so the problem doesn’t go away.
The problem seems to be occuring in other small towns both in California and Oregon:
Supervisor Rex Bohn said struggling with the impacts and behavior of homeless people seems to be a widespread trend. He read from news reports on how mentally-ill and drug-addicted homeless people are increasingly causing problems in Redding, Ukiah and Grants Pass, Oregon.
Some Garberville residents, as described in this article, are so fed up with the problems caused by transients, they are taking matters into their own hands, as with this resident who began patrolling town streets with his large dog;
“I noticed their increasing numbers at the beginning of the summer,” said Eric Arcos, 41, an independent water treatment contractor who lives in Southern Humboldt. “I just didn’t want to turn a blind eye anymore.”
Arcos and his 22-year-old nephew, along with their dog, a Belgian Malinois (looks like a german shepherd), started patrolling the north end of Garberville from midnight to around 3 a.m. a couple nights a week. Now, it’s a habit.
Arcos began his volunteer patrols because he felt that law enforcement couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, act on crimes he saw happening right in front of him.
But he’s not alone. Arcos is part of a growing contingent of citizens getting active in Southern Humboldt to combat what they see as a lack of police presence in a growing problem.
In fact, so fed up are the locals that on Friday, a group of citizen activists erected a fence around the privately owned but publicly used ‘Town Square’ in Garberville.
Others too are feeling the need to “take back our town”, as described in this article.
Much of the problem for these towns may be owing to the fact that these areas are in the Emerald Triangle, and attract what is known as “trimmigrants”, young people who come to help with the annual marijuana trimming work in the pot farms. Many of them don’t leave when the work is over, but end up in the streets, causing problems.