By Jeff Dietrich
It looked like an anti-terrorist takedown: five cop cars, 10 police officers, a yellow skip loader and a 5-ton dump truck. They screeched to a halt and blocked off 6th Street in front of our soup kitchen in downtown Los Angeles. But their target this spring was not a suicide bomber or a hidden nuclear device; it was the four red shopping carts parked in front of our building. Those of us who had worked on skid row for a while were not surprised; we’d seen it all before.
It has been standard city policy since the mid-1980s to have the aforementioned convoy of skip loader, dump truck and police escort patrol the streets of skid row to confiscate the unattended possessions of homeless people — belongings deemed superfluous, excessive or simply trash. Often these sweeps would take medication, identification papers and family photos, the last vestiges of past lives.
Between 1989 and 2005, three lawsuits, two by civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, were filed and won in state and federal courts against the city of Los Angeles regarding the rights of the homeless. As a result, the police are required to give sufficient notice before removing property of the homeless, and the city must pay damages to homeless people for possessions that had been taken and dumped rather than stored for a certain length of time.
Despite these court victories and the periodic interdiction of homeless activists, the city and police have continued their policy of what amounts to theft from the homeless.
Like a battle-weary soldier who has seen too much, you can get a hard heart. But on this particular occasion, one of our volunteers from the suburbs observed the entire episode and was shocked. “Can’t we do something about this?” Richard asked. “They just took everybody’s stuff. They were just eating lunch and when they rushed out to grab their shopping carts, the police said, ‘No, this is abandoned property.”’
It’s always unsettling for our volunteers from the suburbs. They think the rules that apply there should apply on skid row. But that’s not how it works. Despite those court cases, if you are gone for five minutes to wash, eat or relieve yourself, you can lose all of your possessions. If you leave a friend in charge of your shopping cart and the police suspect that your friend is not the actual owner — boom — gone to the city dump. I felt like the cop in that old Jack Nicholson movie. I imagined myself saying to our volunteer, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
So inured had I become to the way things are that I did not even bother to contact Carol Sobel about the incident. Fortunately, others did. She came, took depositions, collected photos and went back to federal court.
I was heartened but did not have high expectations for the hearing. The way city officials and police tell their story of skid row, everyone on the streets is either a drug addict or a dealer, and those people do not have a constitutional right to security in their person or property. So in June, when we gathered in the august federal courtroom, I was expecting an affirmation of police impunity.
But I was as unprepared as the deputy city attorney was for the announcement that Judge Philip Gutierrez made: Before we begin today, I need to inform the court that in 1980 I was a summer intern at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen. I chopped onions, I served food and I cleaned toilets. But I have had no contact with them since. Therefore I see no reason to recuse myself from this case.
Whoa! Our jaws dropped. At the end of the court day we got the federal injunction halting the seizure and destruction of the personal property of the homeless. The judge ruled that homeless individuals have an expectation of privacy in their property, even if left on the sidewalk for short periods. Richard was elated. For him, it confirmed that the system works. I was in a state of shock . Where did this come from?
We are all formed by our individual life experiences. We are raised Republican or Democrat; Protestant, Jewish or Catholic. But Gutierrez, however improbably, appears to have been formed in some measure by his experience of chopping onions, cleaning toilets and serving food to the homeless at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen.
I’m not saying that’s the only reason he ruled the way he did, but from the perspective of those of us who work with the homeless, and the perspective of the homeless folks who push shopping carts containing the last of their earthly treasures, it is like one of those unlikely biblical stories.
Just when you give up all hope, just when you think that the authorities have the final word, just when you think that the rules of the suburbs cannot possibly apply on skid row, for a moment at least, to paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “the universe bends toward justice.”
Jeff Dietrich is the director of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker and has worked on skid row for 40 years. His most recent book, “Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row,” will be published this fall. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.