Police need laws changed to help homeless. For now, signage will have to suffice

Palm Springs police will soon have one additional tool to help rid public property of piles of personal belongings: Signs will be going into place in the coming months warning that it’s illegal under city code to have masses of materials heaped on sidewalks and bus stops, or towed in shopping carts.

“People are coming down with multiple shopping carts and dragging all these belongings with them,” said Lt. William Hutchinson, who supervises officers operating in the city’s downtown core. “We are working on that.”

In the short-term, Hutchinson said that work includes posting signs along South Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon drives, starting at Alejo Road and going south. The area is the epicenter of a crisis involving unhoused residents, many of whom are battling addiction issues. The signs will warn that “Sitting, Lying, Sleeping, or Storing, Using, Maintaining, or Placing Personal Property/Camping Items” on city property violates one or more of five different existing city municipal codes, and that citations can be issued for code violations.

City Manager Justin Clifton said Tuesday that the signage will be added to make existing policies more clear, and that the rules are administrative and not adopted by ordinance. Similar policies have been in place for years in the city, and were modeled after those in place in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The policies are amended “from time to time,” Clifton said, including just last year.

With both policies and signs in place, Hutchinson said police will more effectively be able to enforce something more commonly known as a “sit-lie” law. Similar efforts made in years past have proven successful, according to business owners who spoke Tuesday during a virtual Main Street Palm Springs meeting.

“All the ordinances we need are already approved,” Hutchinson said later by phone, adding that citations will only be issued to “habitual offenders” who have repeatedly blocked public rights of way.

Hutchinson acknowledged writing citations might not do much to discourage homeless residents from piling large loads of personal possessions on public property — just as citations do little to deter drug use. Being cited and even arrested is a familiar experience for many who know they ultimately won’t face severe consequences for their actions.

“We’re really dealing with a large number of people who are suffering mental health crises and a lack of people to get them the help that they need.”

— Palm Springs Police Lt. William Hutchinson

Still, Hutchinson said, officers need to use everything at their disposal in the short term while waiting for long-term change.

“We need to be able to deal with things the way they are right now and not six months from now,” he said, pointing to the fact disturbing incidents involving individuals experiencing mental health crises are becoming more frequent in areas of Downtown where tourists congregate.

Police want to be part of long-term solutions that help individuals in crisis find relief from suffering, Hutchinson said. But to get there, changes at the state and federal levels are needed more than changes at Palm Springs City Hall. Police on the front lines are caught in the middle, he explained, as they are expected to enforce laws that could lead to jail while at the same time watching elected leaders outside the city work to reduce jail populations and lessen the penalties for some crimes.

“When we don’t have a place to put them and we don’t have ordinances in place to help with the leveraged deterrents, that makes it more difficult,” Hutchinson told the business leaders,” adding later that, “When the benefits of staying on the streets far outweigh the penalty of being arrested, our hands are tied.”

What Hutchinson and others in his department hope to have eventually are options similar to those proposed by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. Especially vital, he said, is support for a change in state laws governing who can be held involuntarily. Currently, police can only commit somebody involuntarily if they are deemed to be a hazard to themselves or others or gravely disabled. What police need, he said, is the ability to hold somebody after a licensed mental health practitioner determines they need treatment.

“We’re really dealing with a large number of people who are suffering mental health crises and a lack of people to get them the help that they need,” he said.

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