I recently wrote of the need to focus on reform in the wake of the Kelly Thomas verdict. There, I argued that police spending should be diverted away from wasteful high-tech gear and towards practical stress training. Responding to the piece, a local policy maker messaged me with the following point:
Regardless of how one feels about whether police brutality occurred here or not, funding and mental energy should be spent on getting the homeless population permanently housed and providing them the supportive services they require. If Kelly Thomas [homeless at the time of his murder] had been in permanent supportive housing, he’d still be alive. Case closed.
A powerful argument that further reveals the wide-range of reform efforts that should be on the table as we reflect on the legacy of Kelly Thomas. Moving forward, Orange County must accomplish its stated goal of opening OC’s first year-around homeless shelter. Further, leaders should be critical of laws that “criminalize” and stigmatize the homeless population.
A recent study conducted by a nonprofit concluded that there are more than 12,700 homeless people in Orange County, many of whom are in dire need of an emergency shelter. In Anaheim (OC’s largest city by population), the city’s Poverty Task Force counted 447 homeless people living within the city during the daytime. Anaheim police responded to 4,458 calls for services related to homeless people in a single fiscal year.
At present, there are two seasonal (generally open between December and March) emergency shelters that can house about 200 people each in Santa Ana and Fullerton. In addition, there are small, privately-run, shelters that serve a few dozen around the county. According to the Voice of OC, Orange County is among the few large metropolitan areas in the nation without a permanent, year-round shelter.
Last year, OC Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson led the effort to open Orange County’s first permanent, year-round, homeless shelter. The Board agreed to purchase a $3.1 million building sitting on two acres on State College Boulevard in Fullerton (the city where Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by local on-duty police officers) as the sight for the shelter. The Fullerton City Council, however, voted to reject that plan. Supervisor Nelson, who represents Fullerton, credits opposition to a not-in-my-backyard mentality. The planned sight was across the street from a school.
Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker, who voted to reject the shelter, argued that approving the plan would constitute tacit approval of the county’s approach to homelessness, which he felt left the city with no control over the project. Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald, who voted in favor of the planned shelter, referred to such criticism as a pretext to be against the project. In any event, county government has taken the lead on the homelessness issue and experts argue that the county’s role is appropriate because the problem must be addressed at a regional level. The project has thus stalled, and it is safe to assume that this will not be the last shelter-less winter in OC.
Alongside the debate over the shelter, many cities in OC have recently enacted laws that critics claim “criminalize” the homeless population. Such an ordinance was adopted in Anaheim last year. A homeless person pitching a tent in Anaheim will now be fined $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense committed within a year and $500 for each subsequent violation within a year. The law also directs police officers to impound sleeping bags, clothes, luggage and other personal property stored in public areas across the city.
Anaheim’s city staff prepared and urged adoption of the ordinance maintaining that it will “serve as a tool in the City’s effort to promote and support safe, clean and accessible neighborhoods and eliminate blight.” Jennifer Lee-Anderson, co-chairwoman of the Anaheim Poverty Task Force, argued against the ordinance. “When homeless people get citations they cannot pay for, they go to jails that are already crowded,” she said. The law, Lee-Anderson concluded, “does not solve the homeless problem; it only shifts the deck chairs around the Titanic.”
In Costa Mesa, Mayor Eric Bever pushed for closing down the city’s soup kitchen arguing it was an “attractive nuisance” that drew homeless people from elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, a homeless man and woman were found dead in the area. And in Santa Ana, Supervisor John Moorlach failed to convince city officials that allowing homeless people to use a vacant bus terminal was better than forcing them to sleep on the sidewalks.
In sum, while the debate is well underway, advocates for the homeless lack sufficient popular support among the voters. Aiding their efforts is yet another way to cure your Kelly Thomas verdict blues. Improving our approach to homelessness will free-up precious public safety resources. Moreover, it will do much to free our police officers from the dangerous business of confronting and shuffling the homeless around the city. Police officers are warriors trained to keep the peace; we can not expect them to play the role of a social worker.
Postscript: The 2014 Anaheim Homeless Count is coming up on Sat., Feb. 15th, 6 to 10 a.m. and they need volunteers. You can find more information here.
Daniel Lamb is a criminal defense attorney in Anaheim, California. A conservative activist born in Orange County, Daniel is driven by his dedication to fiscal responsibility and transparency in local governments.