by Alan Pyke Posted on April 7, 2015 at 3:43 pm Updated: April 8,
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A group of California towns is fighting for their right to criminalize homelessness as state lawmakers weigh new protections for the destitute on Tuesday.
The League of California Cities (LCC) is opposing a new statewide “Right to Rest” bill protecting homeless people’s right to sleep and eat in public. The bill would pre-empt local ordinances that impose fines and jail terms for homeless people over their use of public spaces for non-criminal activity. Such local efforts to make homelessness illegal have cropped up all around the country in recent years, even as homelessness advocates have piled up evidence that it is far cheaper to provide permanent housing to the homeless than it is to lock them up.
The “Right to Rest” law, which gets its first hearing before a Senate committee on Tuesday afternoon, is inspired by a rapid uptick in law enforcement targeting of the unsheltered and a new understanding of how many California towns have laws that criminalize homeless people’s day-to-day activities. Law students from Berkeley found more than 500 separate anti-homeless laws in a review of just 58 cities’ codes, and concluded that California cities are twice as likely as other American towns to ban homeless people from sleeping in their cars.
Their report found that arrests for vagrancy offenses have surged as arrests for disorderly conduct slipped, “suggesting that homeless people are being punished for their status, not their behavior.” That attitude was on full display in San Rafael, CA, earlier this year when Mayor Gary Phillips closed a city park favored by the homeless because “I want to break the cycle so this is not a place for them to hang out.”
The bill up for a hearing Tuesday is broadly written, but intended to “end the criminalization of the non-criminal activities of life exercised by homeless people” in public spaces. Its author notes federal findings that laws like the ones LCC is working to defend are ineffective at protecting the public interest and even exacerbate homelessness by adding criminal records and institutionalization to an already long list of challenges. The LCC’s legislative letter against the bill argues that it would undermine the basic definition of property rights that “are the foundation of our social order,” and grant special rights to anyone defined as homeless. The group has asked member towns to send letters of opposition to the senator sponsoring the bill.
“Right to Rest” is just one piece of homelessness legislation facing the state this session, and looking at it in connection with the others makes the LCC’s position harder to understand. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D) has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s financing system for affordable housing that would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into construction and upkeep of buildings that could keep the working poor off the streets.
The LCC supports those Atkins bills, and claims that its opposition to “Right to Rest” is consistent with that affordable housing stance. LCC spokeswoman Eva Spiegel told ThinkProgress that the group supports Atkins’ ideas because they correspond with a national consensus “that the key to helping the homeless get back on their feet is through a combination of housing and supportive services.”
But the criminalization law “creates another excuse for not making the commitment to house and serve the homeless,” Spiegel said. Spiegel declined to clarify exactly how decriminalizing homelessness would distract from the holistic efforts that LCC supports.
It isn’t an obvious connection. Criminalizing homeless people’s sleeping habits, minimal property holdings, and access to fresh food doesn’t do anything to facilitate their getting into permanent supportive housing. Cities that have committed to the criminalization path have sometimes found themselves on the wrong end of the courts, as in the case of Fort Lauderdale, FL and Dallas, TX.
If the goal is to devote more resources to housing and counseling solutions that are proven to be effective, criminalizing people’s behavior when they don’t have access to a house may actively get in the way. One study has found that it costs over $30,000 per year in law enforcement and health care expenses to leave a homeless person on the street and criminalize her behavior, but barely $10,000 a year to put him into a permanent housing unit.
California cities fight homeless rights bill
League of California Cities opposition to Right to Rest Act latest in long history of classist edicts, rights groups say
The Right to Rest bill, which moves to a state Senate hearing on April 7, would allow homeless individuals to sit, stand, eat or rest without it being a criminal offense.
Municipal laws in California targeting these behaviors have skyrocketed in past years, a recent report showed, with researchers identifying over 500 restrictions in California municipalities — nearly nine laws per city, on average.
The League of California Cities, an association of California city officials that work to influence policy decisions, drafted a petition last week against the bill, arguing that it doesn’t provide a solution to homelessness and would “undermine the ability of all others to access clean and non-threatening public spaces.”
For rights advocates, that’s tantamount to calling the homeless dirty and threatening.
The League “hides or puts a veil over the race and class issues that are really behind this … but it always seeps through,” said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP).
“Bottom line,” Boden said, the League is saying, “‘We don’t want to see these people, and we want to preserve our authority to pass and enforce these laws, so if too many come around to make us uncomfortable, we can use these laws to get rid of them.’”
The homeless are not the first marginalized group targeted by the League in its over 100-year history, according to documents provided by the Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP), an organization that works on the behalf of low-income Californians.
Past League targets for the removal from public space or even entire municipalities include Chinese, Japanese and African Americans, as well as “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object,” according to the documents.
To counteract the League of California Cities’ opposition to the bill, WRAP, WCLP and other social justice groups sent a letter to Jim Beall, chairman of the California Transportation and Housing Committee, who will oversee this week’s hearing on the bill. In it, the advocacy groups placed the group’s resistance to the Right to Rest bill into a long history of antipathy toward the downtrodden.
“The League of California Cities has an unfortunate history of being on the wrong side of civil and human rights history in some critical times in our past and their opposition to SB 608 continues this historical pattern,” the letter said.
The League has supported sundown towns, Jim Crow laws, Chinese exclusion and Japanese internment, the letter added.
Opposition to the bill by the League “falls on the same kinds of scare tactics used throughout the last century to ban certain ‘undesirables’ who were deemed to be an ‘economic blight’ or danger on the street,” the letter said.
The League rejected allegations that its opposition to the bill was based on an effort to discriminate against a certain group of people. Its communications director, Eva Spiegel, emailed Al Jazeera that the League has a “longstanding commitment to human rights and inclusivity,” that is reflected in its racially and politically diverse board.
“We reject any effort to falsely characterize the league’s opposition to SB 608 as reflective of an organizational philosophy to discriminate against certain groups,” Spiegel said. “This is completely inaccurate and fails to appropriately reflect the comments in our letter.”
Spiegel said the League opposes the bill because it “does nothing to help the homeless get off the streets” and that the solution is to provide affordable housing. She cited California’s 2011 removal of over $1 billion per year in affordable housing. She said that has “had a devastating and well-documented effect of the ability of cities, non-profits, and others to build this much needed housing.”
Homeless advocates agree that cuts to funding for affordable housing are largely to blame for the modern crisis of homelessness, but they disagree that the bill would accomplish “nothing” in getting people of the streets.
Even if there was affordable housing available, having a criminal record makes it more difficult for homeless individuals to find employment and housing. And aggressive policing pushes the homeless out of city centers, farther from the services intended to help them.
Advocates told Al Jazeera that the League’s position on the bill is based on a desire to remove the homeless from public space in the interest of promoting business.
The League’s petition said that a law asserting the rights of people to rest and carry out life-sustaining behaviors in public areas without criminalization would “create social disorder,” adding that the bill “creates a special set of exemptions and privileges for one group of people.”
Advocates said the bill asserts the rights of every Californian to rest, sleep, share food and pray in public.
Boden said that those who argue the bills would create a special exemption for the homeless overlook the discriminatory manner in which those laws are policed.
“This bill says … if you’re forced to sleep outside that doesn’t mean you’re committing a crime — it means we’re having a housing crisis,” Boden added.
As part of the movement for homeless rights that has brought together over 170 social justice groups, similar bills aimed at protecting the right to sit, stand, eat or rest in public have been introduced in state legislatures in Colorado, Oregon and Hawaii.
All of the bills are facing similar opposition by municipalities and business district improvement groups, Boden said.
California eyes Right to Rest Act to stem criminalization of homeless
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Homeless America: ‘Everyone should be able to pee for free with dignity’
UN says 2.5 billion lack toilets globally, and activists say many homeless in the US struggle to find restrooms
Calif. laws increasingly target homeless, sparking calls for Right to Rest
Study finds 77 percent jump in arrests for vagrancy offenses since 2000; campaigners face deadline to find bill sponsor
Critics slam Indianapolis mayor for veto of Homeless Bill of Rights
The proposal would do ‘nothing,’ said the mayor, but others say the homeless need protection from police discrimination
Opinion: The growing criminalization of homelessness
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UPDATE ON RIGHT TO REST LAW
Date: Wed, 8 Apr 2015 13:18:10 -0700
Subject: Right To Rest Hearing update
For those who weren’t there and/or those who would like to re-live our awesome testimony yesterday, here is the link to the streaming archive:You can also download audio here: