When We’re Helping, We’re Happy
Lots of things about Los Angeles are mixed up. People wear flip-flops in December, nobody wants to age past 30, and the craziest few actually push their dogs around in strollers. This is a place where no one knows how to drive in the rain, 1,200-square-foot houses cost a million dollars, and Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed like a good idea for governor.
I can’t exactly explain why California is so peculiar, but I think our good weather has something to do with it. We don’t have to battle the elements that much, and that gives us a lot of free time to rearrange our priorities in ridiculous ways.
For Angelenos, the horrible traffic might be a factor, too. Something about sitting on a snarled-up highway makes you lose all sense of context. It’s like being in prison for an hour (or two) every day, and when you get out, you go a bit wild making up for lost time.
Either way, we’re kind of kooky. I fight it, I really do.
So imagine my surprise when I read about the screwball idea coming out of the LA City Council: Let homeless people work off their parking tickets by performing community service.
City officials are concerned that the homeless get a lot of tickets. Some homeless individuals have cars that they either live in or use to store their meager belongings. Some of the cars run, some don’t. They are more than likely not registered, not insured, and don’t come with working windshield wipers or a full tank of gas.
These cars get parked in various places and eventually, because they are either out of gas, broken down, or their owners are too busy searching for food in dumpsters to worry about street-sweeping, they are ticketed. The tickets aren’t paid because, obviously, the vehicle owners are homeless and have limited funds. After the tickets stack up, the vehicles are towed.
Nobody needs to tell me that tickets are a fact of life. That the revenue they create barely pays for what it costs to issue them. And that enforcement is a necessary activity for a long list of reasons. I understand street-sweeping, red curbs, time limits and all the other strictures that keep parking from turning into mass chaos.
But don’t the homeless have enough problems? Is this really how we’re going to help them?
A city councilman, whom I will not name, announced the plan, calling it a service that will help “break the sad cycle of homelessness and poverty.” He also described the program as smart and compassionate.
People who meet the federal definition of being homeless under Title 42 of the Public Health and Welfare Code can apply to participate in the program. They are allowed to work off a maximum of 10 parking citations up to a combined value of $1,500 per year.
In 2016, the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reported there were more than 3,900 people living in their cars.
I see a weak link between letting homeless individuals work off tickets and ending the cycle of poverty. They are definitely better off having access to their cars, but ending the cycle requires something more like providing opportunities that a homeless person needs to find housing and gainful employment – not filling their hours with community service.
I can’t tell you what homeless individuals will think about performing community service to pay off tickets. Maybe they’ll be relieved; maybe they’ll be happy to get back their cars.
But from my standpoint, a compassionate approach would be to not punish the homeless for being destitute and instead find some way to accommodate their vehicles.
A compassionate approach might be to issue warnings with a list of better parking options instead of tickets.
Compassion is when a homeless person shows up to retrieve an impounded car and finds help instead of an enormous fine that he or she cannot possibly pay. Compassion is not asking people with drastically limited resources to use those resources to protect what could be their most important asset.
And a smart solution? Maybe, if we’re willing to write off the tickets anyway, we let homeless scofflaws attend therapy or take high school, college or life skills classes to work off fines and regain access to their vehicles.
If we’re smart, our efforts to help homeless people will be directly focused on helping them not be homeless.