A package of bills aimed at comprehensively addressing homelessness in California includes legislation that would create a zone in the heart of Los Angeles' Skid Row where people on probation for drug sales would be banned -- except to attend drug treatment programs. State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) introduced the "Narcotics Recovery Zone" proposal, Senate Bill 1320 last week. A companion bill, SB 1318, would add two years to the prison sentences of those convicted of selling drugs in the area.
With an estimated 5,000 denizens, LA's Skid Row area is the state's largest concentration of homeless people and a dumping ground for mentally ill, drug-addicted and other "problem" people by area law enforcement agencies and hospitals, the LA Police Department charged last fall. It is also the site of two recent massive police sweeps beginning in November that police touted as removing violent criminals from the streets. But an analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that most of those arrested were parole violators, and most of them were on parole for drug convictions.
"You don't focus on the condition of homelessness," said LAPD Chief William Bratton in November, "but on the behavior that is illegal or abhorrent, or if it is not illegal, is somewhat offensive to normal sensibilities."
Sen. Cedillo has a broader perspective. His package of bills include measures that would prohibit jails and other agencies from dumping people downtown, create a community courts system, and measures seeking to tamp down drug activity in the area.
In announcing the bills last week, Cedillo said changing the drug environment in Skid Row is critical. "We're going to solve this," Cedillo said last Tuesday from Sacramento. "This is going to get done."
But creating another layer of criminalization for an already marginalized population is not a answer that sat well with Casey Horan, executive director for the Skid Row social service provider Lamp Community. She told the Times increasing penalties will result in more homeless people being sent to jail. "Criminalization is counterproductive," she said. Instead, she advocates more affordable housing, additional shelters and an increase in supportive services. "We really and unanimously want to revitalize this community. We share that," she said. "But we know that increasing criminalization is not the answer."
The effort to bar drug offenders from certain areas is probably also unconstitutional. A similar measure in Cincinnati was struck by the Supreme Court not once, but twice.