(Mint Press) – Skid Row, Los Angeles’s home to the homeless, is now being patrolled by the police wearing protective masks to minimize face-to-face contact with people living on the streets. A new, persistent strain of tuberculosis has hit the area, exposing as many as 4,500 and creating the largest outbreak of TB in the last decade.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that a strain of tuberculosis (TB) to be unique to Los Angeles has manifested and is propagated by the homeless population of LA’s Skid Row. “They go from place to place and the likelihood of passing it along is much greater,” said Paul Gregerson, chief medical officer of the JWCH Institute, which runs a homeless health care program on Skid Row. “It makes everybody more susceptible.”
It is for reasons like this that the city of Los Angeles started destroying homeless residents’ unattended belongings on city streets and property. “We have an obligation to the homeless, as well as to the other residents and businesses on Skid Row, to ensure their health through regularly cleaning Skid Row’s streets and sidewalks,” City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said in a statement. “The current outbreak of tuberculosis among that most vulnerable population should serve as a stern reminder to us all, of just who and what is at risk.”
On Feb. 28, the city will ask the Supreme Court to overrule an injunction issued by a lesser court that banned the city from discarding these belongings. This case may have broad implications and may set precedent for property rights cases for the homeless in other cities. The Court has yet to decide if it will hear the case.
The dispute began when eight homeless individuals accused city workers and the police of seizing and destroying their belongings while they used the restroom, gathered water or appeared in court. The individuals left their possessions including:identification, medication and cellphones in shopping carts provided by social services groups. In some cases, the individuals were blocked from retrieving their belongings.
The United States’ 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2 to 1 last September that the city went over the line in the seizing homeless people’s property. The court ruled that the belongings of the homeless that are left on sidewalks temporarily can only be seized if it presented an immediate threat the public health and safety or if the belongings constituted evidence in a criminal investigation. In any case, the city is not authorized to destroy the belongings and must tell the possession owners where they can collect their property.
City attorneys question if the property owners’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protects from undue search and seizures, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which guarantees due process and extends to those that violate a city ordinance, have been violated. The city feels that the injunction is creating a “public health disaster” with piles of possessions on the ground or overflowing shopping carts cluttering the sidewalks.
“The presence of this unattended property makes it impossible to clean the sidewalks, leads to an accumulation of human waste and rotting food around and underneath, that in turn provides a breeding ground for vermin and bacteria,” according to the filing posted by the city.
The homeless situation in LA
Last year, the City of Los Angeles asked the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Public Health to inspect Skid Row which resulted in citations for violations of county and state health codes, including accumulations of human waste, condoms and hypodermic needles and a major rat infestation.
The city started a large-scale cleanup operation, in which city workers removed — according to the L.A. Times — “78 hypodermic needles, 94 syringes, 60 razor blades, 10 knives, 11 items of other drug paraphernalia and two 5-gallon buckets of feces.”
Homeless advocates point out that this type of cleanup, as compared to the removal efforts cited in the injunction, is the correct way to do a street cleaning. Homeless residents were warned in advance, were allowed to remove belongings and were treated courteously and with respect. If items left unaccounted for they were bagged, tagged and shelved for 90 days.
City officials, however, feel that this is an unnecessary burden on municipal workers, as it exposes them to unreasonable health risks in sorting belongings. The cleanup has convinced many to not clean-up after themselves. “We never, ever had to battle that before the injunction, which has taken Skid Row back at least eight years to before all the improvements,” said Andy Bales, head of the Union Rescue Mission. “It has emboldened people to leave their stuff everywhere.”
Many in the Skid Row community feel that the Court of Appeals ruling may be destructive to the homeless population. “No one’s mental illness, tuberculosis or staph infection gets better lying on a public sidewalk,” said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, which runs a storage facility for the homeless. “They are human beings who are often unable to make rational decisions for themselves and they need our help. Instead, we give them options that are self destructive, like you can amass and hoard your belongings on the sidewalk.”
Skid Row holds one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States, with the population reaching 4,316 in 2011. It is not uncommon to see cardboard boxes and camping tents lining the streets in this district. According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, Los Angeles County has a homeless population of roughly 254,000, with approximately 82,000 homeless at any given time. Between 14 and 18 percent of the homeless are not Americans by citizenry and almost half are of African descent.
On Feb. 19, Elisa Lam, a Canadian tourist, was found dead and decomposing in the water cistern of the Cecil Hotel, a Skid Row institution. The case is currently open.