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California Town Pushes Homeless Into the Desert

by Jayson Hawkins

Since the first cities arose millennia ago, homelessness has been a part of the urban landscape. A wide array of solutions has been attempted, some more humane than others, but no technique has a proven track record of long-term success. Homelessness in California has bubbled up to intrude on public awareness more frequently in recent years, but the problem there has proven as resistant to the slogans and campaign promises of ambitious politicians as many other issues that plague America’s most populous state. City officials in Lancaster, California, however, have chosen to become proactive in their efforts to address the problem, and they have done so by reviving a timeless solution — criminalizing homelessness and driving the unhoused out into the desert.

Lancaster is a city on the outskirts of Los Angeles County where the northern edge of America’s largest and richest metropolis touches the Mojave Desert. In recent years, deputies and city police have waged an effective war on the homeless: clearing encampments, issuing misdemeanor citations for loitering or soliciting, and banning the parking of trailers or pitching of tents inside the city. The result has been an exodus of the homeless to the unincorporated desert land outside town, a place with no water, electricity, or relief from the 110°F heat. Not surprisingly, the coroner’s office has logged the deaths of 246 unhoused people around Lancaster since 2015 from causes as varied as heatstroke, hypothermia, dehydration, homicide, heart disease, and overdose.

L.A. County is home to some of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the country, but its homelessness problem has ballooned over the past few years, drawing international scrutiny and throwing gasoline on local political debates. The county is estimated to have 66,000 unhoused people, roughly 20% of the national total, but despite vast spending on programs and housing, people are becoming homeless faster than the unhoused are moved indoors. The problem has evoked predictable political reactions, from jailing people for loitering to high-profile clearances of homeless camps in places like Venice Beach. In Lancaster, the homeless make up just over 1% of the population but account for nearly half of all police stops. Candice Winfrey, who lives in an encampment in the desert outside Lancaster, has experienced the efforts of police first hand. “The city of Lancaster treats us like we are a lost cause, … like we’re dirty and they don’t want to see us,” she said.

“The county isn’t treating this like a humanitarian crisis,” said ACLU of Southern California advocate Eve Garrow. “Instead of providing aid, law enforcement displaces them to remote areas so far away from resources that it’s a danger to their health and their lives.”

The encampment outside Lancaster varies in size, but ACLU volunteers counted 200 people there in June 2022. Residents have to walk miles to fill buckets with water and rely on local volunteers to deliver food aid.

The ACLU has urged local authorities to get involved, and staff from the local L.A. County supervisor’s office have visited. But thus far, there has been no action. Ruth Sanchez, an ACLU volunteer who delivers supplies to the camp, has little confidence in city officials. “We’ve been having meetings for a year. How many can we have before you do something?” she asked.

Lancaster’s mayor R. Rex Parris has denied being “at war” with the homeless, but he seemed unwilling to compromise on the city’s policy. “We’re not dropping these people out in the desert. I don’t want people out there with no water.… 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.” Officials at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment about the desert encampment.

Tracey Sutton, who grew up in Lancaster and now lives in a tent in the desert, summed up the attitude of many of the city’s homeless: “We’re not bothering you. Leave us alone.”

Source: The Guardian

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