October 11, 2006
Guilty of Being Homeless in America
Sleepless on Skid Row
By GREGORY AFGHANI
The measure of personal freedom in society, to a great extent, can be demonstrated by its treatment of the least privileged citizens.
Recent events in Los Angeles provide an instructive case in recognizing power, and a stark illustration of where we continue to head as a society, not a trivial matter, if we demand to live in a just societyfor everyone.
Meet Robert Lee Purrie: Sleep Criminal, Guilty of Being Homeless!
Robert Lee Purrie has lived on Skid Row, long a decrepit and neglected area of downtown Los Angeles, and "home to the largest contingent of homeless people in the western United States," including Robert for the last "four decades," where he "sleeps on the streets because he cannot afford a room in [a single room occupancy] hotel and is often unable to find an open bed in a shelter."
According to a September 19, 2006, Los Angeles Times front-page article, entitled, Plan Would End Homeless 'Tent Cities,' by Richard Winton, Robert was cited twice by Los Angeles police for the heinous act of sleeping on the sidewalk, before he was arrested by police officers in 2003. The City of Los Angeles, recognizing Skid Row as a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, enacted an "anti-camping" ordinance criminalizing the act of "sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks."
For Robert's act of sidewalk sleep crime, the unquestionably honorable judge in the case, meted out a sentence of, ironically: one night in jail -- mercifully suspending the remaining 12 months, then compounded the irony with insult, dutifully imposing a fine of $195 in restitution and attorney's fees on a man who, lest we forget, can't afford a single night's stay in a downtown hotel slum.
Obviously, this jurist has a keen sense of justice and heartfelt compassion. No doubt to ensure that Robert understood the seriousness of his indiscretion, LA's finest dispensed yet more callousness, discarding the tools of Robert's criminal enterprise: his blankets, cooking utensils, and tent.
Procedural History: the Federal Court, the U.S. Constitution, ACLU, and Robert Lee Purrie vs. the Good Guys in the State/Private Power Consortium.
Trespass, the crime of entering upon, to sleep or otherwise, another's private property without permission, having long been established, the police and business elite in Los Angeles, using the anti-camping ordinance, attempted with stark clarity to openly declare sleeping on public sidewalks off limits, leaving the already weary homeless with a literally impossible choice: Remain perpetually awake, upright, and constantly on the move or be harassed, criminalized, incarcerated, monetarily sanctioned, and pilfered of what little personal property they may own.
On behalf of Robert and five other sleep criminals, the American Civil Liberties Union, in their customary subversive effort to uphold the annoying constitutional rights of the voiceless, powerless, and now sleepless, filed suit in a federal appeals court and in April 2006, the Court ruled in favor of the ACLU and the camping confederates, stating that, "the LAPD cannot arrest people for sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks in Skid Row." Writing for the 2-1 majority, Judge Kim M. Wardlow held that a lack of homeless shelter beds made enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance, prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on the streets, tantamount to a violation of the 8th Amendment clause barring cruel and unusual punishment.
Establishment reaction to the Court's ruling is instructive. On the hawkish end, LAPD Chief of Police, William Bratton said the case had stymied his department's effort to "fight against crime" and "clean up skid row." Predictably, Winton showed impressive journalistic restraint, devoting no analysis to the obvious question of how police are any less able to enforce the law, simply because the homeless would be unchallenged for sleeping on the sidewalk. During sleep, we are led to believe, is when most crime occurs.
A cynic may point out that Bratton is absolutely correct in his assessment, given his perception that sitting or sleeping in public, is by definition, a "crime," a direct contravention to the Court's holding, known also from the case forward as the law. Thankfully, Winton leaves nothing to logical deduction as he relents with, "the focus on skid row has also coincided with a boom in residential development downtown with luxury lofts and condos rising on the fringes of the district," a revealing concession he cleverly positions as a concurrent overlap, borne of happenstance perhaps, thus not within the state/private power association, surely.
We see at once what Bratton's primary concern in the "fight against crime," is. He is stymied by his definition of crime, not crime as we understand it, but sleeping, like all people need to do whether they can afford shelter or not. Bratton worriedly proclaims, "if we wait two more years, the area will be gone," in a suddenly desperate desire to "clean up," a euphemism in this context for state transgression in blatant violation of individual rights. For Bratton, the law is an obstacle to his institutional charge of faithfully serving the interests of the privileged class.