An influential league of California cities is opposing a bill that would allow people to rest in public areas — a position that homeless activists argue is reminiscent of past efforts in the state to exclude historically "undesirable" groups.
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 the Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP), an organization that works on the behalf of low-income Californians.
To address 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 letter called the League's efforts reminiscent of earlier movements in California to rid public spaces of certain groups of people, including Chinese, Japanese and African Americans. A San Francisco city ordinance from 1869 once called “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” to be banned from public places.
“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. It cited the League's support, in a 1942 letter, for the internment of local Japanese-Americans.
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.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that an earlier version mischaracterized the League of California Cities' connection to historical efforts to exclude marginalized groups from public spaces.