The term “draconian” – a word showing up more and more in popular culture these days – actually has its roots in ancient Greece. Coming from a set of punitive laws with severe punishments created by an Athenian legislator named Draco, draconian has become associated over the centuries with measures that seem cruel or harsh.
But the greatest feature of Draco’s code, somewhat lost in the winding interpretations of time, is that it was obscenely unjust, with even the most minor offenses punishable by absurd, brutal sentences.
That’s why today, when you hear about a new draconian law, it’s important to pay close attention to what’s going on. Such is the case with the new ban the city of Los Angeles passed on sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets. The ordinance, which is set to go into effect in September, will essentially make it illegal for homeless people to rest in approximately 40% of the city.
And with more than 40,000 unhoused residents with nowhere else to go in the City of Angels, the upheaval, disorder and confusion that such a blanket, unenforceable mandate causes will create serious and unanswerable problems for everyone involved.
What makes this edict so hard to understand is that cities, including L.A., have gone down this dead-end road before. In a 2006 landmark case – Jones vs. the City of Los Angeles – the United States Court of Appeals held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a jurisdiction from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter. Since then, similar case law – most notably the Supreme Court’s decision in Martin vs. the City of Boise – have repeatedly reinforced that homeless people simply cannot be punished for where they lay their heads down to rest at night when no other options are available.
More to the point, such laws are costly and ineffective. Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness by providing shelter, housing and stability, criminalization wastes limited resources and creates a revolving door from the street to the criminal justice system, with no end in sight. There is no resolution through this approach and time and time again the result of such work is wasted energy, lost time and an incalculable damage to human life.
The reality is that these types the laws are not borne out of research or any evidence-based approach. They are drafted by lawmakers desperately hoping to appease an increasingly fed-up voter base that wants to see visible change now. The sad irony, though, is that such laws have no discernable or immediate impact and ultimately make things much worse. It’s just a flimsy Band-aid to cover a wound that without treatment will never fully heal.
The real work is trying to figure out where everyone can go to safely sleep at night.
That involves building more housing, creating temporary shelter and working upstream to keep people from ever becoming homeless in the first place. It’s the focus of our local Community Plan to End Homelessness and is, in fact, the only proven method to improving the quality of life for our community as a whole. There are data and real-life stories to support the efficacy of this work, and it’s the only way to go if measurable change is really what we want to see.
In these hard times, we need to do everything we can to bring people together and alleviate suffering, not exacerbate it further through unnecessary punishments. Perhaps the morale of this story comes from the fate of Draco himself: for his code, he was driven out of Athens by the Athenians to die in exile, forgotten and alone.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.