When I saw the title “Los Angeles to Permit Sleeping on Sidewalks” in yesterday’s New York Times, my first thought was “Oh no – the city’s housing program is on the streets!” But the story itself provides a heartening example of how courts that protect the vulnerable and a robust civil society can address the kind of good versus good values conflict seen so often in the health sector.
Down and out people have been flocking to California since before Woody Guthrie wrote songs about hoboes. Los Angeles has one of the highest populations of homeless in the U.S. Cities have a legitimate interest for wanting sidewalks to be free of sleepers, and to that end the LAPD had been conducting sweeps to move homeless folks off the streets.
But homeless people have a legitimate interest in access to affordable housing, and homelessness is not a crime. In 2006 the Federal Court of Appeals agreed, and determined that "punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter" violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Now the L.A. City Council and the ACLU have reached a compromise. Los Angeles will stop enforcing the law against sleeping in the streets until it builds 1,250 new units of affordable housing. The compromise recognizes the legitimate interest of the homeless for housing and the city for sleeper-free streets.
At a distance this story looks like democratic process at its best. The Bill of Rights reminded us that cruel and unusual punishment is evil and must not be allowed. A quintessential component of civil society, the American Civil Liberties Union, represented the homeless in an effective manner. Los Angeles committed itself to a more humane approach to homelessness. And another component of civil society – the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness and Hunger – criticized the compromise as providing too little housing, warned against the possibility of future police sweeps, and promised to monitor the city’s conduct.
Let’s hope that our next national administration shows this kind of respect for core values and this kind of dexterity in adjudicating moral conflict.