Dear Editor – The Cruelty is the Point

Dear Editor:
    The Culver City Council is introducing an “anti-camping” ordinance at the upcoming January 23 meeting. According to the staff report, enforcement will not involve arresting unhoused residents (though that language doesn’t appear in the ordinance itself, or in a resolution directing staff). Rather, the enforcement mechanism is apparently seizing all of an unhoused person’s belongings, leaving only “a person’s blanket, pillow, sleeping bag, or similar bedding.”

First, this ordinance might well be unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2022 that cities can’t prohibit unhoused people from “taking necessary minimal measures to keep themselves warm and dry while sleeping when there are no alternative forms of shelter available.” The city has apparently interpreted this as allowing the seizure of a tent but not a blanket. But given that this is not a settled area of law, enacting this ordinance is just asking for the kind of lawsuits San Francisco and other cities are facing over their anti-camping ordinances.

Second, this ordinance won’t do anything to reduce homelessness. The staff report repeatedly mentions offering unhoused residents “shelter/housing” prior to enforcement (or sometimes “housing/shelter”). But this ordinance isn’t establishing a voluntary program that connects unhoused people to shelter or motels. That program already exists—and we’ve had it for years.

Rather, this ordinance is a program to approach anyone living in a tent and seize everything they’ve got except for their pillow and blanket. This kind of enforcement isn’t required for doing intensive outreach. In fact, we’ve seen that outreach is more effective when it isn’t paired with citations and property seizure.

Culver City claims to follow a “housing first” approach. Housing first is a well-studied method that has been repeatedly found to actually reduce homelessness. In these studies, it is defined as providing permanent supportive housing (not just shelter or temporary motel stays), offered on a voluntary basis and without preconditions.

“Take this motel voucher and move along, or we’ll seize your stuff” is a different approach. It’s a punishment. Its legality is questionable, and more importantly it’s failed to reduce homelessness when it’s been tried in other cities. In fact, it does the opposite—it only causes further hardship, pushing unhoused folks further away from getting housed.

In these kinds of sweeps, unhoused people lose identification documents that may be necessary for housing eligibility, health records, and medications. Their stuff may be technically retrievable from the city in a dumpster on the other side of town, but studies of these enforcement actions reveal that “loss of property and continuous relocation are underlying factors in crime and safety risks, as unhoused people are forced to undergo extreme lengths to regain necessities.”

Why is *this* the big idea from our new council majority—the big idea that needed an emergency council meeting days before Christmas?

Do they mistakenly think that doing the same thing we’ve been doing, but with the addition of seizing the possessions of unhoused residents, will be more effective at reducing homelessness?

Or, worse, do they know it won’t reduce homelessness, and the cruelty is the point?


Stephen Jones

The Actors' Gang