The hoax shooting of a sheriff’s deputy was an embarrassment. The mayor of Lancaster made things worse by claiming that the apartment complex where the deputy said the gunfire came from is dangerous — not because a shooter was supposedly in the building, but because formerly homeless people with mental health conditions live there.
This claim is as baseless as the concocted shooting.
Research shows that having a mental health issue does not make a person dangerous. In fact, people with serious mental health conditions commit a tiny fraction—as little as three percent—of all violent acts. They are much more likely to be victims of violent acts than to commit them.
Far from being a public safety hazard, the apartment complex provides an affordable, permanent, and service-rich home to people with mental illness. It gives people who are homeless a haven from the dangers of the streets, where they are at risk of victimization.
In other words, the apartment complex is a public health and safety intervention that mitigates homelessness and helps keeps the community safe.
Yet, even as the investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department quickly revealed that the deputy had fabricated the shooting, Mayor R. Rex Parris doubled down on his claim that the complex’s residents are dangerous, going so far as to recommend that the city build a barrier to shield the sheriff’s station from the adjacent apartment building. He remained unrepentant during a recent city council meeting when community members demanded an apology.
It’s not unlike President Trump maniacally insisting, long after it was shown to be untrue, that Alabama was in Hurricane Dorian’s path.
Parris’ demonization of the innocent apartment residents is only the latest instance in a string of false and hateful comments he has made about Lancaster’s most economically vulnerable community members. Responding to an uptick in the 2019 homeless count, he told people to arm themselves. He has repeatedly stated that unhoused people are not welcome in Lancaster, calling them “public health risks.” He advocated giving them one-way tickets out of town.
People experiencing homelessness describe a pattern of harassment and exclusion by the city that matches the mayor’s words. For example, city workers have pushed homeless community members into remote desert areas where they are miles from water sources and subject to triple-digit heat. One man who lives in a broken-down RV with his pregnant wife said that officials told him to relocate just outside of city limits. “Now we are three miles from town, and we don’t have a working car,” he noted. “I’m worried about my wife and two elderly people who live out here.”
Enough already. The mayor needs to stop peddling in crude, baseless stereotypes. He should apologize to the public for spreading misinformation about people with mental health conditions and make a direct apology to the apartment complex residents he insulted with his irresponsible claims. If he really cares about public health and safety, he should commit city funding to develop more affordable housing to end homelessness, so that every Lancaster resident has a safe place to call home. Moving forward, he should get his facts straight before he speaks and treat all community members with the dignity and respect they deserve.
And if the Mayor can’t meet the basic standards of civility and decency that we expect of our elected officials, perhaps it is he who should leave town.
Eve Garrow is the Homelessness Policy analyst and advocate at the ACLU of Southern California.