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Housing and Homelessness

The ACLU Says There’s A War Against Unhoused People In Los Angeles

An image of two tents next to each other on a sidewalk in Hollywood. One tent is red, the other is read and gray.
The ACLU says the city and county of Los Angeles criminalize homelessness instead of addressing the need for safe and affordable housing.
(Ethan Ward
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Los Angeles is participating in discrimination against unhoused people, according to a report released by the American Civilities Liberties Union that claims the city and county have long criminalized homelessness instead of investing in affordable housing.

The report — released Tuesday — claims that local governments throughout the state have discriminated against people experiencing homelessness through harassment, segregation, issuing citations, and withholding services that could save lives.

In Southern California, the ACLU cited the city of L.A.'s removal of an encampment at Echo Park Lake and the city of Lancaster's forcing unhoused people to the outskirts of the desert, away from water and food, as examples of aggressive tactics used to remove unhoused people from public spaces. The report says those actions are symbols of a more widespread problem. Discrimination against unhoused people was also found to be more commonplace, taking many different forms, and that local governments target places that unhoused people use for rest or care.

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The city of Los Angeles has taken steps to move away from punitive measures by adopting a street engagement strategy that calls for outreach and offering services for unhoused people before they can be removed from an encampment. But that engagement is not utilized for unhoused people who are living near libraries or schools, or are blocking access to sidewalks for people with disabilities.

The report goes on to say that some elected and public officials are also contributing to hateful discourse about homelessness. It pointed to L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva deploying his deputies this summer to patrol the unhoused encampment on the Venice boardwalk, even though the area falls under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A woman holds a blue citation issued by the Los Angeles Police Department for camping in MacArthur Park on Oct. 6, 2021.
A notice to appear issued by the Los Angeles Police Department on Oct. 6, 2021 at MacArthur Park. The woman has since moved indoors.
(Ethan Ward

The ACLU also said in the report that some former and present members of the LAPD have contributed to unfairly criticizing the unhoused by participating in what it calls neighborhood "vigilante" groups on Facebook, where they have posted private information about unhoused people that sometimes included their medical information. (When asked for comment, an LAPD spokesperson said: "At this time, we are unable to accommodate your request.”)

Structural racism in housing, employment, health care and criminal justice has led to Black people being disproportionally impacted by homelessness, according to the report. (You can read our explainer, Understanding LA’s Homelessness Issues, to learn more about how Black people account for 34% of L.A.'s unhoused population despite only making up 8% of the population.)

Los Angeles wasn’t the only region to draw scrutiny from the ACLU. The organization presented case studies that found discrimination in various forms across California, including the banning of RVs for sleeping in the city of Mountain View, and Laguna Beach’s use of trespassing letters to expand law enforcement’s reach.

The ACLU suggests amending California laws to protect people from discrimination based on housing status. The group also calls on officials to stop enforcing state laws that discriminate against people for being unhoused and to invest more in affordable housing.

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