LANCASTER – Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris accused the ACLU Tuesday of getting it wrong in a report concerning the homeless in his city, saying that many indigent persons would rather camp in the Mojave Desert than live on the streets of Los Angeles where they could be murdered in their sleep.
In its report, the civil rights group contends that Lancaster is “at war” with homeless persons in the area and has pushed many of them to harsh, isolated and life-threatening conditions in the desert.
“We’re not dropping these people out in the desert,” Parris said in an interview. “I don’t want people out there with no water. But they’d rather go out into the desert than go back to L.A. where they’re (at risk of being) raped and killed.”
Parris said the city of Lancaster is working to help, not hinder the progress of homeless people into housing. Pointing to last year’s opening of the Kensington Campus, a 14-acre full-service campus that is a mix of permanent and supportive housing, jobs, counseling and other services, Parris said the project, when completed, will offer a stable environment for more than 400 individuals.
“The whole purpose was to create an environment where people could thrive in a safe, supportive place,” Parris said.
The ACLU report, “Banished and Abandoned: Criminalization and Displacement of Unhoused People in Lancaster,” alleges that the city’s homeless 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 the authors say is unavoidable for people who have no access to housing or shelter.
“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 American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California. “It must stop now.”
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 Lancaster that result in municipal citations, with fines usually far beyond a person’s means to pay, the ACLU contends.
Parris, however, said the city of Lancaster acts in accordance with an appeals court ruling that bars the arrest of homeless people for sleeping in public if no shelter space is provided.
“We know that once they have criminal records, it’s almost impossible to find work,” Parris said. “I don’t want low-level offenders to have criminal records.”
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 Lancaster 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’s deputies also patrol unincorporated areas outside Lancaster, the harassment often continues, according to the report. Parris objected to the ACLU’s charge that Lancaster is engaged in a “war” with its homeless population.
“That’s not true, but am I going to allow people to sleep wherever they want and try and get money from people who are shopping? That’s not going to happen,” Parris said. “I’m 69 years old. What are they going to do to me?”
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