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Definition of 'temporary' storage on Skid Row unclear to some

By Hayley Fox
Published: Thursday, September 06, 2012, at 04:59PM
Bear Guerra/KPCC

Some say the ordinance doesn't clearly define what "personal property" is or what "temporary" means.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction yesterday, halting L.A. City officials from confiscating and destroying homeless people's personal property on Skid Row. The ordinance states that residents are allowed to leave their possessions on the sidewalk temporarily -- and if these items are seized, they must be kept for 90 days at a designated DTLA storage facility.

Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, runs the storage location and says the warehouse now contains more than 1,100 bins for property. She said there is still some confusion around the specifics of the ruling.

"None of the legalese, neither the [original] injunction nor this ruling by the court, really defines what is meant by 'personal property' or what is meant by 'temporarily' having it on the sidewalk," she said. "If you read the court's order or the lawsuit that prompted all this, you'll see them defined as someone's cell phone, birth certificate, eyeglasses...That's not the reality."

The reality, Lopez said, is that Skid Row is a massive open air drug market. Couches, mattresses and tables pile up on the sidewalk and many homeless people create "mini shantytowns" out of their tents -- where Lopez said she's seen people having sex and injecting illicit drugs.

"After that injunction [enacted last year] we saw a very dramatic increase both in the number of people on the sidewalks of Skid Row and in the number of 'possessions' in Skid Row," she said.

The LAPD police captain in the area, Horace Frank, said it wasn't the injunction itself that caused the problems, it was the initial misinterpretation of what it meant. Confiscating property is allowed in certain circumstances, it just can't be destroyed, explained Frank.

He said the appeals court ruling "does not change anything in terms of what we've been doing over the past couple of months."

After the city was cited by the L.A. County Health Department for multiple violations found on Skid Row, including hypodermic needles and human excrement,, a massive clean-up of the area ensued. In order to help maintain the relative cleanliness, the LAPD revamped their commitment to enforcing sidewalk laws; it's illegal to sit and sleep between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. or store property in the public space for an extended period of time.

Skid Row activist "General" Jeff Page said the area needs "more mental health officials" not more police officers, and said homeless people need to be given direction and explanation.

"How about telling us what we can do? Where we can go?" he said.

Page said the ordinance was too vague and lacked a clear description of what "temporary" storage meant. A day? An hour? Ten minutes? Until specifics were clearly explained, Page said it'd be difficult for him to "weigh an opinion."

He explained that there is a major communication breakdown between policymakers and the people it affects the most -- homeless residents on Skid Row.

"We have to hear second- or third-hand information," Page said, adding that a lot of people in the area don't understand what the ordinance means, making it difficult to abide by its rules.

Councilwoman Jan Perry said that to her, the ordinance is really a health and safety issue. She said that clarifying what "personal property" is may be difficult.

"A personal belonging is defined by the person who has the belonging," Perry said.

"The city is going to have to continue to do the very best it can to protect the health and welfare of people actually living on the street," she said, adding that although the court's decision to uphold the injunction may make this task more difficult, it's "the hand that's been dealt."

Perry said that the city is already working on a plan to open an additional storage facility to accommodate the extra possessions, as well as working with the health department to develop new strategies and guidelines for healthy living in the area.

As of now, it's unknown whether the city will appeal the court's decision.

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