The measure from state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, says every person has a right to use public spaces, regardless of housing status.
The bill is partly a reaction to ordinances passed in recent years by several cities concerned about the number of people on the streets. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Palo Alto are among the municipalities that have banned people from sitting and lying on streets and sidewalks.
Ammiano’s so-called “Homeless Bill of Rights” prohibits police from enforcing ordinances on resting in public places unless a county has provided sufficient support to homeless people. It also includes a right to an attorney during court proceedings that involve minor offenses.
“Citations, arrests and jail time do not solve homelessness,” Ammiano told the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “They just route crucial public dollars that could be spent on housing to an already impacted court and corrections system.”
AB5 also would require state government to pay for creating local “hygiene centers” with restrooms and showers open 24 hours a day.
The bill has been revised several times since its introduction. A reference allowing people to urinate in public spaces was stricken, and it now says the rights listed apply in public spaces but not on private property.
Local governments and business groups oppose the legislation, saying it would lead to costly mandates and lawsuits. In particular, opponents said the provision limiting whether police could enforce ordinances was unfair to cities because it’s county governments that are responsible for managing public housing waiting lists and providing cash assistance.
“We have no control over what services the county does or does not provide,” said Kirstin Kolpitcke of the League of California Cities.
Dozens of homeless people and representatives of organizations that provide assistance joined Ammiano on Tuesday in support of the bill.
Long-term shelters have done little to help solve homelessness, a problem that has grown worse amid the recession, said Paul Boden, organizing director of the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project.
In response, he said, cities and towns have increased policing efforts aimed at removing homeless people from streets.
“Not only is the criminalization of poverty and homelessness wrong, it is incredibly expensive,” said Boden, estimating that California counties spend $300 million a year incarcerating homeless people.
The bill passed the committee on a 7-2 vote, with Republican Assemblymen Donald Wagner and Brian Maienschein opposing.
Maienschien, who served as San Diego’s first commissioner on homelessness, said the bill does not give cities enough flexibility in trying to assist the homeless.
“What would work in San Diego, what might work in L.A. isn’t going to work in other places, and particularly in smaller towns, maybe more rural areas, it’s going to be different,” Maienschein said.
Several Democrats on the committee said they support the goal of preventing discrimination against homeless people but have concerns about the potential cost of the bill’s requirements, including creating hygiene centers, and its restrictions on police officers.
Ammiano’s bill now awaits review by the Appropriations Committee before possibly going to the full Assembly.
Similar legislation was approved last year in Rhode Island.
Scaled-down homeless rights law advances
Updated 7:08 pm, Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Homeless people in California would have the right to rest in public spaces, including sidewalks, without the threat of arrest, and local governments would have to provide access to bathrooms and showers, under a bill that passed its first major test Tuesday.The bill, called the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, could supersede local laws – including in San Francisco – that bar people from sitting or lying on sidewalks unless those localities meet certain requirements.
It was introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on a 7-2 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and with the opposition of many local governments and business groups.
Ammiano significantly scaled back the scope of the bill from when it was first introduced last year, removing provisions that would have applied to private property and businesses. He called it a narrow bill to provide “a few basic protections” that would ensure California does not criminalize homelessness.
“The solution to homelessness is not citations or jail time,” Ammiano said. Proponents compare current laws targeting the behavior of homeless people to past Jim Crow and “Anti-Okie” laws that were designed to segregate or remove people deemed undesirable.
Under the measure, a person’s housing status would be added to the list of categories included in the state’s antidiscrimination law, which applies to government entities and entities that receive money from the government.
The other categories include race, national origin, ethnic group identification, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, color, genetic information or disability.
Additionally, the proposed bill lists 15 specific rights for people who are homeless, according to an analysis of the measure.
Those include the right “to move freely, rest, solicit donations, pray, meditate, or practice religion, and to eat, share, accept, or give food and water in public spaces without being subject to criminal or civil sanctions, harassment or arrest.”
This would extend to parks for the entire 24-hour day, regardless of whether the park has hours that it is closed.
Local governments that provide year-round non-medical assistance for adults, that are not in areas of high unemployment and that don’t have a public housing waiting list longer than 50 people would be exempted from the provision on sitting, sleeping, eating and soliciting in public places.
Other declared rights would include the ability to set down personal belongings and the right to restitution if that property is “confiscated, removed or damaged” by law enforcement or security guards.
Homeless people also would be guaranteed an attorney if they were given a citation for an activity related to their housing status and could sue for discrimination violations based on their housing status.
Law enforcement would be required to track and report citations related to homelessness, and local governments would have to provide “health and hygiene centers” that would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would be required to include bathrooms and showers.
Police officers could still enforce laws against illegal activity, such as defecating or urinating in public, or public drunkenness.
Opponents of the bill who testified included representatives of the League of California Cities, the California Chamber of Commerce and other business and municipal groups, though the bill was amended late Monday to narrow some requirements.
Several representatives of the groups said they had not been able to analyze the changes to see if they would alter their position.
Kirstin Kolpitcke, speaking for the League of California Cities, said that requiring law enforcement to collect and report citations was burdensome for those agencies.
She also noted that while local cities pass ordinances about sitting or lying in public, the bill puts the burden on counties to provide services that would create exemptions to allow for the continued enforcement of those laws.
“As a city, we have no control over what services a county does or does not provide,” she said, adding that the league was in favor of other bills that would provide funding for affordable housing and housing for veterans.
Other opponents raised concerns about new civil liabilities if housing status is included in California’s non-discrimination law.
State would pay
The bill would increase costs for local governments that would have to be paid by the state, though a price tag has yet to be determined. It heads next to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.
The measure attracted dozens of people – some homeless, some formerly homeless – who spoke in support.
One of those was Sean Gregory, 24, of Los Angeles, who said he was living on Skid Row before recently moving into transitional housing. He said he was under a tarp one morning putting on his shoes after sleeping when a police officer directed him to put his hands behind his back, telling him he was not awake by 6 a.m. and taking him to jail.
Not having an attorney, he pleaded no contest and was fined $145.
“I spent three days in jail waiting for that,” Gregory said.
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