By Rune Girschfeld
In his April 14th letter, L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl laid out his “carrot and stick” approach to people who are unlawfully sleeping in their vehicles on Venice city streets. He stated his goal is to “rid the streets of unsightly cars and campers that impact our quality of life.” He proposes a “measured, balanced, and humane” approach which would balance services and a Safe Parking Program, the “carrot,” with “aggressive” police enforcement, pursuing “whichever restricted parking measures are legally permissible,” the “stick.”
Rosendahl’s approach is far from “measured, balanced, and humane.” As someone who is a mobile-homed Venice resident, I have felt the stick. I have experienced first-hand the practice behind the pretense. I wonder whether the “residents” know what “aggressive enforcement” looks like?
Aggressive enforcement is targeting the mobile-homed through the use of “sweeps.” It typically happens late at night, with no witnesses, just the police and their victims. I have personally experienced these sweeps, involving intimidation and outright threats of arrest, vehicle confiscation and other “legal” measures meant to induce fear, nearly every month, the most recent occurrence on April 13th, the day before Rosendahl’s letter.
The police target everyone within an area where the mobile-homed are more concentrated, typically streets that are not heavily residential. Sleeping citizens are ordered out of their vehicles. They are put off balance with rapid-fire questions. They are lied to and told they must answer questions; that the police “know” they are hiding something, that they can forcefully open doors if not opened voluntarily and that they can take away their children. Actually, some of those might not be lies, but who can be sure at 4 a.m.? We are ganged up on; surrounded by officers taunting, threatening, laughing. Numerous officers have said to me that Rosendahl, Venice residents, police leaders, and the city council have met and decided that we are a problem to be “swept” and “cleaned” from the streets of Venice. I don’t understand how some people in all good conscience can call others names like “criminal” or “garbage” (as implied by the expressions “cleaning” or “sweeping” the street). I can’t believe everyone who gets swept up is worthy of the title “criminal.”
During one instance, I was handcuffed when I invoked my Fifth Amendment rights, determined not to be interrogated so cruelly yet again. I have been ticketed for the misdemeanor crime of sleeping in a vehicle. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be magically decriminalized by paying someone every month for the right to sleep? Personally, I work full-time and still cannot afford to decriminalize myself. I do not understand where the idea came from that someone who is living in a vehicle is “taking advantage,” as though they had chosen to live in third-world America at the expense of the housed.
Rosendahl also has in a mind utilizing a few more “tools” to “force from our neighborhoods” the people of which he speaks. First, there is the pending lawsuit with the Coastal Commission over jurisdiction so that the Overnight Parking Districts can be used to force out “non-residents.” Second, there is his move to amend the Oversized Vehicle Ordinance to give a more inclusive definition of the vehicle sizes which can be outlawed on streets during prime sleeping hours. And finally, 36 additional police officers assigned to the area are arriving by Memorial Day Weekend who can then give more tickets for sleeping, do more sweeps, wreak more intimidation.
And what is the “carrot” that is being offered?
Well-meaning Venetians assume that the “carrot” is the services that will help people into houses and jobs, so they too can become residents and legal sleepers. Unfortunately, the Homeless Outreach officers are handing out resource packets full of bogus, outdated and irrelevant information. They show up in tandem with police who are actively ticketing. They are here to help, they say. Their carrot is not very enticing.
Then there is the much talked about Safe Parking Program, which is woefully inadequate to serve the number of mobile-homed residents needing to be decriminalized. The program is awash in regulations ignorant of the demographic in question. The stays would be restricted to three months. So, in practice, six wheeled homes could be decriminalized for a token three months before they might have to choose between the hard legality of the sidewalk and the soft but illegal embrace of an actual bed. This program looks a lot like subterfuge, a rotten carrot with a stick inside.
Rosendahl’s goal to rid the streets of certain vehicles is riddled with negations of the humanity and dignity of those whose homes are vehicles. Rather than “residents” of Venice, they are “non-residents,” whose lack of such a title has political, social, psychological, and human repercussions. Even the metaphor of “carrot and stick,” is demeaning and dehumanizing, equating the homeless with animals, like beasts in dumb resistance to their master. The vernacular, the particular language, used by Rosendahl to speak “about” the mobile-homed recognizes neither their humanity, nor their due voice in laws, strategies, and programs which will have the greatest impact upon them. Rather, it recognizes the factions that exist. Sadly, the simplistic language has already separated their humanity from that of the community around them.
Rosendahl must be challenged to represent all constituents, to solicit the voices of all Venetians, whether he deigns to call them “residents,” and their sleep lawful, or not. As it is and may be, in the practice behind the pretense, we are left with Rosendahl’s true approach: a burro being beaten in the street at 2 AM with none to bear witness to this inhumane injustice. The stick is a stick, but the carrot is rotten.