A Consequence of Being Human: Homelessness and Human Rights

By Daniel James Keegan O’Connell

We all lay down once in a while. Be it sunbathing, napping, reading a book, or just stretching out, we all do it. Personally I like the beach; I can do all of the above on the beach. The thing is, the act of lying down can be controversial, because it has been occasionally illegal. Not here though, at least not in LA anyway. The 2006 Jones v. City of Los Angeles case found the need to lay down, specifically to sleep, to be a consequence of being human. Furthermore it found that “needing to sleep” when there is nowhere available to sleep, should not be an act for which a homeless person might be punished, ticketed, or woken up and told to move on, when there is no available option. So protected by the 8th amendment, under cruel and unusual punishment.  Additionally, in the 2012 Lavan v. City of Los Angeles case, the court ruled that if one happens to leave their belongings upon the street, that said property cannot be legally removed and/or destroyed, as protected by the 4th amendment. They may be removed, if found to be causing an obstruction or a hazard, but they must be held somewhere and the owner identified (most likely by a posting), so that they might be recovered again. Much like that unfortunate towing-of-my-car incident of 2010.

Interestingly, these rulings combined, not only apply to a happy Englishman like myself who might fall asleep on the beach, or allow his parking meter to wane. These things also apply to the 51,000 homeless men, women and children (yes, children) who are currently thought to be displaced or homeless within Los Angles.  Let’s consider that number for a moment, approximately fifty one thousand people who do not have the credible option of going to sleep anywhere tonight that doesn’t consist of a charity bed, a mobile home, or a combination of cardboard, blankets and the sidewalk. The traditional ‘park bench’ is not an option though; as parks have the right to close and kick us all out, understandable. This issue comes down to streets.

We are all aware of homelessness, sometimes we see it, and sometimes we do not. Often times we see it and are not quite sure what might be done about it. Occasionally we see it and a strong emotion is invoked within us. That emotion is really the point of this. What do we feel and what are we to do with that feeling about the issue of homelessness? Someone must help them though; someone must be able to do something? Of course, organizations and systems exist: Shelters, and services, and intake, and support. We all know this. But what can we do? I feel the question is equally what should we do as it is what shouldn’t we do. I discussed this with the office of Councilman Bill Rosendahl, relatable to West LA, specifically Venice. We spoke about the points raised above, we mused over what it is like to be a resident and a social advocate, and we came to this one conclusion: It is a matter of heart and mind, a battlefield if you will, whereby we struggle with how homelessness affects us emotionally and intellectually.

The 9th Court of Appeals has helped us with that, we can now say with intellectual certainty that the homeless community are disadvantaged and their rights must be protected. A matter of fact. We must also consider it a matter of rights, human/civil or otherwise. And if we are to trespass those rights of another human being, because we don’t like to see what we see when we look at people sleeping on the streets, we might also ask ourselves: how is it that I am so privileged to the protection of the amendments and that person is not? When we call someone to tell them about what we see, we must be thoughtful of who we call, unless there is a crime, we can frustrate the police, who now face limited powers. Perhaps we might call a charity, like PATH, and ask them advice on how to help a person, not necessarily money, just how better to assist or where to kindly report a person who must sleep on the street, as a consequence of being human, and having no home. They must be somewhere, just as we must be somewhere, and we should not try to punish people for that.

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