Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute": a letter to Pasadena's Mayor and City officials about our how to treat our homeless residents

This is my second letter to the Mayor and City Council about proposed ordinances that would make it illegal for homeless people to sleep on the street in most areas of the city and to panhandle "aggressively."  If you share my concern that these ordinances penalizing homeless people are unfair and counterproductive, please write to Mayor Terry Tornek at 

It seems ironic that our City Council’s deliberations on measures that would make it illegal for homeless residents to sleep in most areas of our city and to panhandle “aggressively” took place at a time when All Saints Episcopal Church was honoring Rabbi Leonard Beerman, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. Rabbi Beerman was a deeply compassionate man, honored by people of conscience and of all faiths, who worked with All Saints to refurbish skid row housing and provide decent living accommodations for the poor.
“Rabbi Leonard Beerman refused to meet injustice with silent complicity. Even when he felt called to take positions that he knew would be unpopular, he sensed a higher demand to serve as a witness to human suffering and to back up his impassioned words with principled action,” said Rabbi Chasen of Leo Beck Temple at Rabbi Beerman’s memorial service.
The Hebrew Bible addresses all people of faith when it calls us to speak out on behalf of the needy. As a Christian and a Quaker, I take to heart these words:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy
  — Proverbs 31:8-9
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people….What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?
  — Isaiah 10:1-3
As someone who has worked with homeless folk for many years, is married to a passionate advocate for the homeless, and has a formerly homeless person living in our home, I am deeply concerned that the City is making a grave mistake by enacting ordinances that could cost the city millions of dollars in affordable housing funding, exacerbate the homelessness problem, and produce few if any positive outcomes.  It might even result in costly lawsuits against the City. Pasadena has done a lot better than adjacent cities in its treatment of homeless people, and has actually reduced its homeless population, but it still has a long way to go, as you know.
The City Council claims that complaints about homeless behavior have been rising, but it hasn't offered a reason why. To solve a problem, you need to know its causes. Who are the aggressive panhandlers? Mentally disturbed individuals? Substance abusers? Former prison inmates? Refugees from LA’s failed homeless policies? Instead of studying the problem and figuring out how best to deal with it, the city’s immediate response is to give the police new "tools" to deal with homeless people. "Tools" is a euphemism. A tool is something benign and constructive. Arresting, fining and incarcerating homeless people--and depriving them of their right to sleep at night--isn't a tool. To a homeless person, and to any person of conscience, being arrested by an armed police officer and being denied a place to sleep seems more like a weapon than a tool. 
If the City's goal is to reduce and ultimately to end homelessness, the proposed ordinances seem like a step backwards, not forwards. Here are some reasons why:
1) By making "camping" by homeless people illegal, the City runs the risk of law suit. According to the Jones vs. Los Angeles case, filed by the ACLU, it is illegal to forbid homeless people to sleep on the streets if no other shelter is available. It is not only illegal, it is against human decency and morality. Does the City want to run this risk to its pocketbook and reputation?
2) As our Housing Director Bill Huang points out, this policy could put at risk millions of dollars in HUD funding that could help alleviate homelessness by providing affordable housing. Can we afford to lose affordable housing funds when 26,000 Pasadenans are on the Section 8 waiting list? 
3) What does this anti-camping and anti-panhandling program hope to accomplish? This was not made clear. If  homeless individuals can't sleep in public parks or in business areas and are driven out by police, the only places left are residential areas, where schools are located. Councilman Tyron Hampton has pointed out that this is not acceptable, and I'm sure most parents would agree. Therefore, there will be nowhere in the City where homeless folk can sleep, which is a violation of Jones vs. LA. Furthermore, arresting and fining homeless people will mean that many will have to panhandle more aggressively to pay their fines. Or if they are jailed, they will be more traumatized and difficult when they are released. What mentally ill or substance-abusing homeless people need is compassionate treatment, not jail time or fines.
4) The anti-panhandling law seems to me to be immoral as long as the City doesn't provide food and shelter for all its homeless residents. One of the  myths I hear repeated at Council meetings is that homeless people don't need to panhandle because there are enough services in the City so that every homeless person can have shelter and food. What evidence do you have for this claim?  Anyone who has done a homeless count in this city can testify that many homeless people have desperate needs that the city is not meeting. For example, when I did a homeless count, I met an African American homeless woman living right next to City Hall who was blind and had just been sexually molested. Somehow the City had overlooked her need for safe shelter and food. She told us, "I'm black and blind and a woman. No one gives a F about me. " Even receiving SSI doesn’t provide enough money for most disabled people to live without panhandling. I became good friends with another handicapped woman named Melissa who lives in the LA area and receives $900 a month in SSI, which wasn't enough to pay for rent and food.  Melissa is legally blind and in a wheel chair. While she waited seven years to receive a Section 8 voucher, she had to panhandle in order to have food and pay rent (she was paying $1200 a month to live in a "cheap" motel since no apartments would even rent to her). No doubt some homeless people in Pasadena are in similar straits. Even though we do a much better than many adjacent cities, I question whether our city provides enough services for all homeless people to live without panhandling. Remembering my friend Melissa who had to panhandle to survive, I give to homeless people whenever I can. And I feel it’s immoral for the city to penalize panhandlers unless it is sure it has provided safe shelter and food for all its homeless residents.
I realize that the ordinance makes only “aggressive” panhandling illegal. But what do we mean by “aggressive”? Does it mean an overt act? In that case, current laws would cover that offense. But it appears that the ordinance would penalize a homeless person not for an overt action, but for seeming to be threatening. Given the racial profiling in our city, I have legitimate concerns that this law will target mainly people of color who appear threatening to those who are white and privileged. Needless to say, such racial profiling is illegal, though often hard to prove.
It should also be noted that many homeless people do not panhandle. They survive by scavenging for food and recyclables. Some cities fine people who rummage for food or sleep in their cars. This seems to me immoral. By making it illegal to sleep on the street, we are penalizing the most desperately poor in our City. 
As I have pointed out in a previous letter, homeless people are currently sleeping in front of an animal shelter near the Del Mar station. The current ordinance would make it illegal for homeless people to sleep even at this location. Do we want the reputation of being a city that cares more about stray animals than about unhoused people?
5) It is a lie that a cIty as prosperous as Pasadena doesn't have resources to house homeless folk. Whenever the city wants to do an enhancement project, like renovating the Rose Bowl, it finds plenty of money to do so. Choosing to penalize homeless people for aggressive panhandling and sleeping on the street is expensive. No one has calculated how much these ordinances will cost the City, but they probably will not be cheap, especially if there are lawsuits. LA spends $88 million of its $100 million homeless budget on law enforcement, with dismal results. Does Pasadena want to follow LA's bad example? 
Instead of spending money on making it a crime for the poor to sleep on the street or to panhandle, the City would be wiser to invest more funds in Housing First and similar successful programs. These programs could be funded by those who have the means to do so. For example, businesses could pay a fee or some of the money from parking meters and our boutique hotels could be set aside to help the homeless. As you know, Old Town was created through redevelopment funds. 20% of which were supposed to go to create affordable housing to replace the single occupancy hotels where indigents had lived. Instead, the City lobbied Sacramento to get an exemption from this law and hundreds of millions of dollars were diverted to the pension funds of the police and fire department. Old Town was built on the backs of the poor. It therefore seems only fair that the businesses and patrons in Old Town who benefit from redevelopment should help subsidize housing for those who were displaced.
I have heard that Air B&Bs want to be taxed and their taxes go into a fund for affordable housing instead of the Convention Center, as is the case with other hotel fees. That seems like another practical solution given the current problem, which is a lack of affordable housing.
The Housing Department has also made excellent recommendations for utilizing unused land to build permanent supportive housing, but Council members have balked. As Council member John Kennedy pointed out, only one member has had the political courage to stand up against NIMBYism. 
I don't want to minimize the problem. It is true that some homeless people have mental and social problems that can be very vexing. Living on the street can drive even a sane person crazy. It is also true that some homeless people act out in ways that can seem scary. Rather than punish them, what makes sense is to give the police more training in psychology and hire more psychologists and social workers who can work with mentally disturbed homeless people. Housing Works does this very effectively and could be consulted as a model. This is what is done in countries like Sweden, with excellent results. Let's look to Sweden, not LA, as our policy model and to the Bible as our moral guide.

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