The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California released a report Monday detailing what its authors called the persecution of homeless people in Lancaster by city officials and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
The report, “Banished and Abandoned: Criminalization and Displacement of Unhoused People in Lancaster,” contends the city is “at war” with those living on the streets and has pushed many of them to harsh, isolated and life-threatening conditions in the Mojave Desert.
“Responding to homelessness by criminalizing, banishing and disenfranchising our unhoused neighbors is unlawful and potentially deadly,” said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst and advocate at the ACLU SoCal. “It must stop now.”
A message left with Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris was not immediately answered. A sheriff’s department representative did not immediately respond with a comment.
Parris told the Los Angeles Times, however, that the city has acted in accordance with an appeals court ruling that bars the arrest of homeless people for sleeping in public if no shelter space is provided. He told the paper the city has provided various services for the homeless, including the 14-acre Kensington Campus that includes shelter, permanent housing, jobs and counseling.
“I’m trying to create an environment where people who are disabled can thrive,” the mayor told The Times. “I’m not going to just let people live wherever they want, camp where they want, extort money from people who are shopping.”
According to the ACLU report, homeless people in Lancaster are subject to harassment and exorbitant fines for doing as little as sitting in a public park for a few minutes or sleeping outdoors — something authors said is unavoidable for people who have no access to housing or shelter.
People experiencing homelessness make up only 1.3% of Lancaster’s population, according to a U.S. Census report cited by the ACLU, but they represent more than 25% of sheriff’s department contacts in the city that result in municipal citations, with fines usually far beyond a person’s means to pay, the ACLU contends.
The report makes several recommendations, including removing laws that make criminals of unhoused people simply for sleeping outside or engaging in survival strategies to stay alive. It also called on the city to stop forcibly moving and banishing homeless people, stop seizing and destroying personal property, and invest in affordable and permanent supportive housing.
The ACLU report details alleged violations of the U.S. and California Constitutions in the treatment of unhoused people in Lancaster, including restricting their movements, denying them due process, and inflicting cruel and unusual punishment for human conduct as basic as seeking refuge in the shade.
More than 50 people who are homeless in the city and its surrounding area in the Mojave Desert — whether living in tents, cars, or sleeping on the ground — were interviewed over a nearly two-year period for the report, according to the ACLU.
Nearly all those interviewed outside city limits said law enforcement officers had given them a direct order or firm “suggestion” to relocate, though some chose to do so in an attempt to escape harassment. Because sheriff deputies also patrol unincorporated areas outside Lancaster, the harassment often continues, according to the report.
Melissa Ivory, who told ACLU researchers she was banished to the high desert by city workers and the LASD, said the city “left us with no vote and no voice. We are like a piece of wind that carries a voice, but it is not heard at all.”
The ACLU and the UC Irvine Consumer Law Clinic sued the city this month alleging that Lancaster’s practice of assessing fines of up to $1,000 for violations of anti-homeless laws is unconstitutional.