By The Signal Editorial Board
Homelessness is an increasing problem in Southern California, and the Santa Clarita Valley is no exception. It seems like everyone who enters the conversation agrees on those basic facts.
But when the conversation turns to causes and solutions, all hell breaks loose.
Case in point: the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ discussion Tuesday as the supervisors contemplated whether to join in the appeal of Martin vs. City of Boise.
The recent court decision, if it stands, would forbid municipalities from enforcing ordinances that prohibit camping out in public places — unless the municipality in question can provide housing for each homeless person who is asked not to camp on a sidewalk, in a park, on the front porch of the local library, or any other public space.
It would render Santa Clarita’s own ordinance null, unless the city could provide housing for the homeless who camp on sidewalks, under bridges, on bike paths or even in the bed of the Santa Clara River, which is home to several endangered species and is the last unchannelized river in Los Angeles County.
When the hearing began Tuesday, two of the five county supervisors favored joining the appeal in the Martin case: 4th District Supervisor Janice Hahn and 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley.
Two others — Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl — opposed it.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was the swing vote, and ultimately he sided with Barger and Hahn, meaning the county will seek to overturn the Martin ruling.
It was the right decision — and contrary to opponents’ objections, it does not reflect a disregard for the plight of the homeless, and it does not “criminalize” homelessness.
The supervisors’ decision was preceded by predictable and at times distasteful rancor, in which public speakers who seek to preserve the Martin ruling characterized Barger and Hahn as racists and fascists.
That’s how low public discourse has sunk. There are too many of those who characterize anyone who honestly disagrees with them on an issue as a racist or fascist. But we digress.
Here’s why Barger, Hahn and Ridley-Thomas — even if the latter was reluctant — made the right call:
It’s clear that the county and many of its municipalities, including Santa Clarita, are working diligently to address the homelessness issue. Significant progress is being made right here in Santa Clarita to convert the seasonal homeless shelter to a year-round operation, and that’s a cooperative effort of the city, the county and the nonprofit that operates the shelter and its related services that are designed to help people lift themselves up out of homelessness.
Real progress is being made, by people in the community and in local government who really care.
However, the Martin ruling would tie cities’ hands to balance the needs and rights of the homeless versus the needs and rights of … pretty much everyone else.
Own a small business? Public sidewalk in front of it? Would a homeless encampment destroy your foot traffic? Under the Martin ruling, you’d be out of luck, unless housing could be provided in lieu of the campsite outside your front door.
And then there are the many causes of homelessness. Many homeless people are truly down on their luck, with no place to go. They need help finding jobs and getting back on their feet. Many suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues. They need help addressing those issues, or they need long-term treatment.
And, some percentage would just prefer to live free of the hassles of a job and paying rent. The great outdoors calls.
Further, as Barger correctly pointed out during the supervisors’ discussion, government enforcement of common-sense camping ordinances also serves as a tool to deliver help to the homeless who really need it. Leaving them to languish on the streets, or in the riverbed, is not the answer.
“This is about our ability to help people,” Barger told the board, drawing jeers and outbursts from the unruly crowd opposing the motion.
The supervisor told a personal story to reinforce the point:
“I spoke recently with a dear friend whose brother suffers from a serious mental illness and cycles in and out of homelessness,” Barger said. “She explained to me that the local municipalities whose hands are tied by Martin (court ruling) are often unable to help her brother. He cannot be moved to a safer location and, as a result, he never stabilizes.”
Local governments need to be able to protect all of their constituents. That includes the homeless who really need — and are wiling to accept — help to get back on their feet, find jobs and restore their productivity and self-esteem.
And it also includes the business owner whose livelihood could be in real jeopardy, the employees and customers of that business, the family who wants to feel safe taking their kids to a public park without worrying about public defecation and drug needles, and the student who wants to feel comfortable walking into a public library.
The Martin ruling not only fails to protect the current homeless and the public at large, but it also amounts to an open invitation. Set up camp where you want, and if we make you move, you’ll get rent-free housing courtesy of your local taxpayers, no strings attached.
Does anyone really think we will have fewer homeless people then?