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Yanking the Welcome Mat 

Thursday, Mar 13 2003
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The City Attorney's Office won a court ruling last week that dislodges a homeless man from an encampment he has maintained downtown for more than a year.

William Nowell, who lived on the fringe of an empty, state-owned lot across the street from the L.A. Times building, was convicted of trespassing after a weeklong jury trial. A count of sleeping on the sidewalk was dismissed. Nowell was acquitted of a similar charge last year.

Some saw the current case as a test for the city's stepped-up efforts to push transients off the sidewalks of Skid Row. Nowell was arrested in late January and spent 40 days in jail awaiting trial. Deputy Public Defender Nahla Rajan, who represented Nowell, said transient offenders usually plead guilty to obtain a quick release; Nowell was determined to assert his rights.

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Rajan said she learned from the prosecutor that if Nowell prevailed, the city would be forced to change its strategy in addressing the homeless. "They needed a win to continue filing cases like this," Rajan said.

During an interview last fall, Nowell said he expected the continuing gentrification of downtown would lead to another arrest. "It's an ideological clash, basically — ideology meaning how do you want to live."

City authorities answer that homeless encampments are not a lifestyle choice but a consequence of failed public policy. "The Nowell case illustrates that the system doesn't work," said Charlie Beck, captain at the LAPD's Central Division. He noted that Nowell rarely bathed, used the bushes as his toilet, and allowed his clothes to rot until they hung in tatters from his body. "What he was doing there is insanity. It isn't good for him and it's certainly creating a health hazard."

Beck said the officers patrolling Skid Row are working with shelters and treatment providers to ensure that arrests are used only as a last resort. According to the City Attorney's Office, citations for sleeping or camping are suspended when no shelter beds are available.

Despite these measures, attorney Rajan said she has seen a surge of misdemeanor cases. "I think criminalization of homelessness is the worst possible solution."

Rajan said she does not know what will become of Nowell. The single condition of his probation is that he not return to his haunt at Broadway and First Street.

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