For one city administrator, the American Civil Liberties Union on July 14 filed an irony along with a lawsuit against the city of Santa Monica.

The irony was that on the same day the civil rights group was citing the city for violating the rights of homeless people, the city was following through on its progressive record for homeless services.

It had opened a new court to help the less fortunate get treatment and housing that they need, said Julie Rusk, human services manager for the city of Santa Monica.

“We work closely with other departments,” said Rusk. “The city prides itself at tackling hard issues. We take approaches that are interdisciplinary and nuanced.”

Two years ago, the city of Santa Monica started a homeless community court, temporarily housed in city hall, that has helped many people get mental health treatment and housing referrals, Rusk said.

On July 14, it opened with a more permanent home in an office at Los Angeles International Airport. It’s an exciting innovation in treating the criminal justice system as an entry point, not an obstacle, to services for the homeless, Rusk said.

The ACLU of Southern California, in its July 14 news release, stated, “Despite its reputation as a liberal bastion with progressive political and social policies, the city of Santa Monica has used its police officers to harass and intimidate disabled homeless residents in recent years, citing or arresting them for sitting or sleeping in public places, and compelling them to ‘move on’ to other cities.”

Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver defended the city’s police department for its sensitivity to the issues of the homeless. Police officers have training on the issue.

Shriver said officers work well with the city’s homeless outreach team, staffed by the nonprofit organization West Coast Cares with staffers who go around the city on bicycles to meet with homeless citizens.

“I can’t believe the police department in a systematic manner is misbehaving,” said Shriver.

Rusk credited Santa Monica police for diligence in bringing homeless people to a regional mental health urgent care center, as needed.

The ACLU took the easy route in suing Santa Monica, which has the highest per-capita expenditure on homeless services in the area and probably California, said Shriver.

The gutsier tactic with more potential for improving the plight of the homeless, Shriver said, would be for the ACLU to sue the federal government for not providing sufficient mental health services for area homeless veterans.

In his five years as a councilman, Shriver said, he has been working on this issue, including ongoing efforts to find a building for such services.

There are tens of thousands of homeless veterans on the streets of Los Angeles County Shriver said, and professionals believe those coming from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have a higher percentage of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome than veterans of previous wars.

Forty miles down the Pacific Coast in a similar lawsuit, the ACLU had sued Laguna Beach on behalf of five homeless people who claimed unconstitutional treatment from the police.

Laguna Beach, which had denied criminalizing or harassing homeless people, settled the case last month. In rescinding regulations forbidding camping on city property, City Manager Ken Frank noted in a press release that the city had already stopped enforcing those regulations.

The settlement called for expunging any criminal citations or convictions for those violations, the ACLU said.

The issue has received a national airing this week, as well. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless released a thick report decrying the growing problems of criminalizing homelessness.  Read the report here.

In the last two years, there has been a 7 percent increase in laws prohibiting “camping” in designated public places, the report states.

The report named the top 10 cities in the country for “meanness” in criminalizing homeless behavior, taking a look at the number of laws addressing homelessness and the enforcement of them. Three California cities made that mean top 10: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley.

Lance Howland can be reached at

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