Jae C. Hong / AP

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

Municipal laws in California that aim to keep the homeless out of public spaces are on the rise, echoing vagrancy laws of past eras that targeted people of color, migrants and the physically disabled, according to a new report.

The study, to be released Thursday, comes as a coalition of over 130 advocacy groups face a deadline to secure a state legislative sponsor to introduce a Right to Rest bill.

The proposed legislation, which is based on interviews with hundreds of people living on the streets, would end the criminalization of sitting, standing or resting in public.

One of the groups behind the bill welcomed the report's release, even as it lamented its findings.

In a press release, Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), which is leading the coalition's efforts for the Right to Rest bill, said, “This is a major contribution to our understanding of how California cities have responded to homeless people. It's all too reminiscent of Jim Crow, sundown town, anti-Okie and ‘ugly’ laws that targeted marginalized groups, and it confirms our own street outreach surveys of hundreds of homeless people, who are increasingly harassed and punished for their mere presence in public.”

Boden referred to historical anti-vagrancy laws that the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in 1972, because they gave “unfettered discretion” to the police and criminalized innocent activities.

Researchers from the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley Law School analyzed municipal codes that disproportionately affect the homeless in 58 California cities for its report “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State.”

Such laws criminalize standing, sitting, resting, sleeping and in public places as well as begging, panhandling and food sharing, the report said. Researchers identified over 500 restrictions in California municipalities — nearly nine laws per city, on average.

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The study found that the number of ordinances targeting those behaviors rose along with the homeless population, which increased sharply when federal funding for affordable housing was cut in the early 1980s and again with the Great Recession in 2008.

Since 2000, statewide arrests for vagrancy offenses increased by 77 percent, the study showed. San Francisco alone issued over 3,000 citations per year from 2007 to 2013 for violations of codes outlawing sleeping, camping, standing, sitting, resting and begging in public. In Sacramento, citations for violating an anti-camping code within city limits rose from fewer than 50 in 2010 to nearly 1,200 in 2012, the study said.

Far from reducing homelessness, such criminalization can perpetuate poverty by making people ineligible for access to vital social services, affordable housing and employment, the report said. That these laws target the homeless raises legal questions about the constitutional rights of those without a fixed address, it added.

A state-level solution is needed to end those unfair and discriminatory policies, according to the report.

“When considered together, our research findings clearly suggest that only a concerted statewide effort will end this expensive and inhumane whack-a-mole approach to homelessness in California,” Jeffrey Selbin, a UC Berkeley law professor, said in a press release. “The state must decriminalize people’s life-sustaining activities conducted in public and redirect resources to proven approaches that address the root causes of homelessness and poverty.”

State-level action is one step closer in Oregon and Colorado, where representatives have stepped up to sponsor Right to Rest bills in those states. Oregon state Sen. Chip Shields said he sponsored the bill because he didn’t believe homeless people should be treated like delinquents.

“This bill is really about basic justice. People who are homeless not only struggle with life on the street. They struggle with the indignity of being treated like criminals because they have nowhere to eat, sit or sleep. This bill is about making sure everyone is treated equally and humanely under the law,” he said in an emailed statement.

In Colorado, state Rep. Joe Salazar and state Sen. John Kefalas, among others, sponsored a Right to Rest bill, according to Denver Homeless Out Loud, a homeless rights group.

“This issue should be near and dear to all of our hearts,” Salazar said earlier this month at an event hosted by Denver Homeless Out Loud to kick off the campaign for the Colorado State Legislature to pass the bill. “We are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and there’s not a single person that we should leave behind. This is my moral and spiritual conviction.”

But advocates from scores of groups working under WRAP’s leadership have not yet found a sponsor for the bill in California. The deadline for introducing bills this legislative session is Feb. 28.

“We’ve gotten a lot of favorable responses. People have said they would vote for it and agree to acknowledge that something like this is needed,” Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate for WRAP, told Al Jazeera. “They have said that conditions in their district reflect what the research has found and that it’s something they’re uncomfortable with … but no one has stepped up.”

Even though she and other homeless advocates hope the release of the UC Berkeley report will help them find a legislator to sponsor the bill, they do not want to shame anyone into standing up for the homeless.

“If there’s not a single legislator in the state of California that believes in this … then perhaps we need to look around and say, ‘Why is it that we don’t have that?’” Bartholow said. “I’m hoping that this process will empower that leader to step forward, and I’m excited to see who they are.”

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