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LA police arresting homeless on Skid Row for loitering

Sidewalk sleeping barred during day

LOS ANGELES -- The early morning light revealed a "no loitering" sign and a half-dozen people sleeping beneath it in tents on the Skid Row sidewalk.

A few men scattered as a police cruiser rolled up. But Glenda Caldwell wasn't stirring from beneath her filthy blankets .

"Where do you want me to pack up and go?" Caldwell bellowed at the two officers and their sergeant.

Starting this month, a beefed-up police force is arresting people who violate a daytime sidewalk sleeping ban. Plenty worse happens in a neighborhood that for decades has been virtually surrendered to crime, grime, and vagrancy, but now sits on the fringe of an attempted downtown revival.

Critics deride the sidewalk sleeping ban as overzealous, but Police Chief William Bratton insisted it is a way to salvation for Skid Row. He used a similar approach to control crime more than a decade ago in New York City, where he went after serving as Boston's police commissioner.

Enforcing the sidewalk-sleeping ordinance is a stark change for a neighborhood where Los Angeles police traditionally have tried to keep crime from spreading, not stop it. The ordinance is considered one of the most restrictive in the nation and has drawn fire from homeless advocates and their allies.

"LA remains the only city in the US whose answer to homelessness is to criminalize being poor," said Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued to stop the city from enforcing the ordinance. "A program that relies on criminalization isn't going to solve any of the social problems."

More than 200 of the nation's 250 largest cities have ordinances prohibiting sleeping, sitting, and loitering on sidewalks, according to a study by the National Coalition for the Homeless. How much these ordinances are enforced vary day to day, and the group's acting executive director, Michael Stoops, said he has not heard of another city enforcing a no-camping ordinance during the day but not at night.

The Los Angeles policy highlights intractable issues within the city's largest concentration of drug addicts and mentally ill and homeless people -- a population that needs but does not always want specialized care.

With 50 new foot patrol officers redeployed to Skid Row, Bratton's Safer City Initiative attempts to improve an area the police chief calls the worst open-air drug market in the country. By enforcing minor crimes, police will erode a long-accepted feeling of lawlessness, he said. Police arrested about 600 people for selling drugs in the first week of the initiative.

"We're not here to cure homelessness," said police Captain Andrew Smith, who is based in Skid Row. "We're here to . . . end what some call a Mardi Gras of crack here, where it's almost a free zone of dope and prostitution and aggravated assaults."

Homeless rights groups and the ACLU, which sued the city in 2003, decry the policy of moving the homeless from sidewalks as mean-spirited. A federal appeals court sided with the ACLU in April, classifying enforcement of the ordinance as a violation of the Eighth Amendment that bars cruel and unusual punishment as long as there are not enough beds in homeless shelters.

The issue reached the US Supreme Court. Bratton and others signed off on a proposed agreement that would allow overnight sidewalk sleeping, but prohibit it during the day and within 10 feet of a business or residential entrance at all times.

The City Council rejected the settlement last month, fearing it was too sweeping and would let the ACLU make similar challenges elsewhere in the city.

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