CITY HALL — There was a 56-year-old woman who once lived on the streets of Santa Monica, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and claiming she sees spaceships coming for her nightly, the same ones that murdered her parents and sister.
Homeless and surviving on Social Security checks, the woman relocated to Venice after she was reportedly arrested and jailed by the Santa Monica Police Department at least three times for violating City Hall’s ban on camping in public spaces.
She is one of six chronically homeless individuals for whom the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against City Hall. The suit says City Hall violated constitutional rights by arresting the plaintiffs for breaking a local law against camping when there is a lack of sufficient shelter space to accommodate them.
The suit claims City Hall is criminalizing homelessness.
The lawsuit was filed jointly by the ACLU and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, seeking a moratorium on all arrests for sleeping in public until adequate shelter and housing is provided.
“In America, to be poor and homeless and mentally disabled is not a crime,” Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU legal director, said. “But in Santa Monica, police routinely cite, arrest, handcuff and jail the city’s mentally ill homeless residents.”
In a city known for the level of services provided to the homeless (which was even spoofed in an episode of “South Park” where the main characters get rid of a transient problem by directing the homeless to friendlier Santa Monica) the accusations of harassment came as a shock to local officials.
“I’m really perplexed and surprised that this would come about,” Julie Rusk, the human services manager for City Hall, said. “Santa Monica is at the forefront of developing solutions that are effective, compassionate and are about getting people off the streets so their homelessness is ended.”
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said she could not comment on the legal aspects of the lawsuit until she reviewed the complaint, but added that based on her experience working in Santa Monica, City Hall welcomes suggestions about how best to assist the homeless.
“I know that the city is committed to respecting individual rights,” she said. “As far as I know, until last night, no one in the city even knew the ACLU had concerns.”
Standing in front of City Hall for a morning press conference on Tuesday, Rosenbaum talked about the specific men and women who claimed they have been unfairly targeted and harassed by police officers, alleging that there exists a policy and practice of intimidating the homeless to force them to other communities.
He spoke of a 38-year-old recovering addict who was working at a Vernon produce plant. The man was arrested early one morning for allegedly sleeping just steps outside of a local shelter that had reached capacity.
The man showed officers his employee badge and said he would lose his job if arrested, which happened after spending two days in jail and later pleading guilty in court, Rosenbaum said.
“Santa Monica is one of the most affluent cities in this nation with a median home price of $1.65 million,” Rosenbaum said. “Each night in this community it is estimated that some 915 homeless residents must sleep in public places because of the unavailability for any housing or shelter beds or necessary services.”
The figure he quoted came from the 2009 Homeless Count, which tallied the number of homeless individuals in the city on the evening of Jan. 27, finding 435 in shelters and other institutions and 480 on the streets.
Rusk said there are more than 400 shelter beds in Santa Monica. That includes a range of temporary places for people to stay.
She adds that the focus of City Hall and many other communities across the country has shifted to permanent supportive housing.
“We know that while shelters can be an important stop gap, they don’t end someone’s homelessness,” she said. “Our plan is really about ending homelessness for people.”
She added that if every community in the county contributed 400 shelter beds, this issue would be moot.
“If every community is spending the kind of resources we’re spending to address homelessness, there would no longer be a homeless problem in L.A. County,” she said.
SMPD spokesman Sgt. Jay Trisler said the department takes an approach of balanced enforcement when it comes to the homeless, addressing the quality of life issues of the community and the individual’s need for supportive services.
The department last year contracted West Coast Care to supplement efforts of its Homeless Liaison Program, established in 1991 to address the community’s concerns regarding the issue. The HLP team consists of six officers who not only work to enforce the law, but collaborate with different agencies to help the homeless.
Run by former San Francisco minister Ron Hooks, West Coast Care goes out five days a week to areas in the city where the homeless typically congregate, talking to them about seeking help or reuniting with their families.
“It’s not about trying to get the homeless out of the city, it’s to address their needs,” Trisler said.
Trisler added that officers often will first warn homeless individuals about the camping ordinance, arresting them if they are found to violate it a second time.
ACLU officials said that it’s also in City Hall’s best financial interest to cease the arrests, saying that it costs taxpayers $60 for each day a person is jailed and $5,000 a day to prosecute their case.
“Every individual that goes to jail could be put up at the Bonaventure (in Los Angeles) … or the Loews in Santa Monica at a cheaper price,” Rosenbaum said.
Former Santa Monica Mayor Jim Conn was also among the speakers at the press conference, blasting City Hall and saying that he felt ashamed of his hometown.
He said there was a joke at the time of his election that everyone knew tourism season was about to begin because the Los Angeles Police Department would sweep its homeless from Venice into Santa Monica, only to have the SMPD push them back about two weeks later.
“We set policies in place to build affordable housing and shelters for homeless people,” Conn, the founding chair of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said. “At that time we were pleased to know it was Beverly Hills and Culver City who put people on a bus and said at the end of the line in Santa Monica, get off.”
The ACLU has filed similar lawsuits against Los Angeles and Laguna Beach.
John Maceri, the executive director of homeless service provider OPCC, said the lawsuit points to the bigger issue that there is not enough housing resources and services available for the chronically homeless in Santa Monica.
OPCC in early 2007 opened a new 22,000-square-foot facility called Cloverfield Services Center, which includes about 55 beds. It represented the first addition of beds to the homeless service system on the Westside in the past decade. City Hall contributed $7.4 million to the effort.
“People at some point have to sleep or lay down or sit down,” Maceri said. “People can’t stay awake 24/7.”