Several times a week, Alberta Busby, a 50-year-old homeless woman, loads belongings onto her wheelchair and drags her tent a few dozen feet away from the Billie Jean King Main Library in Downtown Long Beach.

After a man with a powerwasher passes by, she moves them back. Soon, others begin taking shelter again under the building’s broad overhang.

“They don’t want us here,” she said, but, “we don’t have nowhere to go.”

It’s the type of situation city officials acknowledged recently in a memo to the City Council explaining how staff decides when to clean out homeless encampments and why it’s so difficult to permanently dismantle them.

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Current laws and a shortage of shelter beds mean the city risks being sued if workers too aggressively prevent people from sleeping in public spaces.

Cleaning encampments — and allowing people to immediately return if they want to — “is not a solution to end homelessness,” according to the memo, but it’s a public health measure the city says it uses to make sure “public spaces can be utilized by the entire community.”

Why can’t the city permanently shut down encampments?

Long Beach already has a law on the books making it a misdemeanor to camp in public spaces, but, because people need to be able to sleep, courts have ruled it’s cruel and unusual punishment to enforce such a ban unless there’s somewhere else to go.

In simple terms, the city memo says, unless Long Beach can “provide an indoor shelter bed to an individual that is sleeping in the public right-of-way, the City cannot criminalize that individual for sleeping outdoors on public property.”

This is complicated by the fact that the city’s shelters “are operating near or at capacity and there is a waitlist of people waiting for a bed,” the recent memo says.

What’s more, because the city relies on private nonprofit partners to bolster its number of publicly funded shelter beds, there’s no comprehensive, real-time data on how many beds are available.

Long Beach is trying to increase its shelter space so it can more reliably offer people a place to stay. In the interim, the city continues to clean the encampments that persist or pop up.

Which encampments get cleaned out?

Long Beach routinely cleans some public areas, including hotspots for encampments like the Billie Jean King Library.

But, other than that, the most common thing to spark a cleanup is a complaint about an encampment “having an impact on the surrounding community,” according to the city’s memo. (The city has an email address for such reports: [email protected].)

City workers are required to speak with homeless residents and offer them help before a cleanup, post signs warning them 48 hours in advance, and hold onto any personal belongings they pick up for 90 days.

Busby, who has been camping at the Billie Jean King Library for about three weeks, said this doesn’t always work in practice.

She said she’s only sometimes been offered help, and she’s already on the waiting list “for everything.”

Alberta Busby, 50, who uses a stick as a cane after hers was stolen, sits with her belongings outside the Billie Jean King Main Library as it’s cleaned in Downtown Long Beach, Monday, April 29, 2024. Photo by Jeremiah Dobruck.

Cherished items that may seem unimportant to other people, such as a table passed along to her by her dead mother, have been thrown away, according to Busby. That’s in addition to the burden of picking up and moving all her belongings every few days.

“Being a woman out here — and heavyset — it’s hard,” she said.

What’s next?

The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering whether to upend the current legal protections for homeless residents. The city of Grants Pass, Oregon petitioned to overturn the lower court ruling that it was inhumane to ban encampments when there was nowhere else to sleep.

Where the Supreme Court will land — a decision that could take months — is unclear.

In the interim, some City Council members have pushed for solutions to keep encampments from taking over public space.

After a 31-year-old homeless man was arrested on suspicion of stabbing a man holding a 2-year-old child in Belmont Shore last year, Councilmember Kristina Duggan asked whether the city could look into new rules, such as moving campers to a sanctioned area or barring encampments near sensitive sites like schools or riverbeds.

Duggan said she’s eager to hear what kind of legal framework the court will hand down so she can keep working on a proposal for the city to clearly define what more it can do the deal with encampments.

“Establishing expectations — that’s what we need to do for residents when they see an encampment, what can they reasonably expect to happen,” she said.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.