A California state lawmaker has proposed a measure that would protect residents without homes from discrimination and police harassment.
The 'Homeless Bill of Rights,' or Assembly Bill 5, was drafted by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). AB 5 would provide legal protection to people engaging in life-sustaining activities on public property. It would allow sleeping, congregating, panhandling, urinating and "collecting and possessing goods for recycling, even if those goods contain alcoholic residue."
The bill would also grant the homeless the right to sleep in legally parked cars, to possess personal property on public lands, and to receive public assistance funds and legal counsel when cited, even for infractions.
AB 5 would also ban officials from forcing homeless people into shelters or social service programs against their will.
Furthermore, the 'Homeless Bill of Rights' affirms that homeless Californians have the right to safe, affordable housing and 24-hour access to clean water and safe restrooms, although it does not require municipalities to provide such facilities.
The measure is being called a logical extension of existing laws that protect Californians from discrimination based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and, in some cities such as San Francisco, immigration status. Proponents of the bill say it is time to end the criminalization of poverty and homelessness and recognize that those without homes are entitled to be treated like human beings instead of society's refuse.
"The Homeless Bill of Rights is a wonderful step restoring dignity and self-worth to our brothers and sisters living on the street," said Rachel Fleischer, a Los Angeles-based activist and director whose award-winning documentary "Without a Home" chronicles the lives of six homeless individuals and families as they struggle to survive. "Having a place to sleep and feel safe should not be a luxury; these are basic needs that provide hope and sanity for each and every one of us," Fleischer told Digital Journal.
AB 5 could be a hard sell in a state where even some of the most progressive cities have enacted measures to criminalize activity associated with homeless people. San Francisco, for example, recently enacted a highly controversial 'sit-lie' ordinance which bans sitting on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. And just a stone's throw from where Ammiano introduced his bill, Sacramento County rangers conduct night patrols along the American River, where many homeless people camp illegally, to evict them. A large tent city housing more than 150 people was dismantled by the city in 2009.
Homeless advocates compare laws and tactics designed to criminalize poverty and keep the homeless out of sight to laws meant to marginalize blacks during the Jim Crow era or the "anti-Okie" laws of the Depression era that barred destitute migrants, many of them fleeing the Dust Bowl, from settling in California.
"Homelessness is a condition, it's not a voluntary choice," Sacramento lawyer and homeless advocate Mark Merkin told the Sacramento Bee. Paul Boden, another advocate, lauded AB 5, telling the Bee that it "would require local governments to leave people in peace who are not committing crimes."
Jack Larson, a 52-year-old homeless Sacramento man who has says he's been cited dozens of times for panhandling, echoed Boden's sentiment.
"They need to go catch murderers and burglars and leave us panhandlers alone," Larson told the Bee.
Today, that is often not the case. And police sometimes do more than just cite and harass homeless people. In July 2011, police in Fullerton beat 37-year-old mentally ill homeless man Kelly Thomas to death, an attack his father-- a retired Orange County Sheriff's deputy-- called "cold-blooded murder."
Former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness, who opposes the bill, said the government would do better to address the root problems that cause homelessness.
"Do you want to see people living like that?" he asked the Bee, referring to the conditions that would be legalized if AB 5 passes. "I don't."
But Fleischer, who has also started the 'What Can I Do?' campaign to raise awareness of homelessness through art and social action, says addressing the causes of homelessness and passing laws to protect homeless people are "not mutually exclusive."
"We must strive to protect our homeless neighbors living on the streets while simultaneously striving to understand and address the complex issues that have brought these people to the streets in the first place," Fleischer told Digital Journal.
If the measure passes, courts would determine to what extent municipalities can limit the rights granted under the law.
California wouldn't be the first state to enact a 'Homeless Bill of Rights.' Rhode Island has had such a law on the books since last June. It states that "no person's rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless. Such a person shall be granted the same rights and privileges as any other resident of the state."
Sadly, the nationwide trend is in the opposite direction. In Dallas, it is now illegal to even give food to homeless people without first registering with the city. Philadelphia, Orlando and Las Vegas have similar laws. Charity and advocacy groups who feed the poor and homeless, such as Food Not Bombs in Orlando, have run afoul of the law for providing life-saving services to the neediest Americans.
Other cities, such as Denver, have outlawed eating or sleeping on public property without permission.
It is precisely this sort of criminalization of poverty and homelessness that proponents of California's 'Homeless Bill of Rights' cite when stressing the need for such a law.
"These people are poor people, our poor people, and if we don't recognize that, then we're lost," Kevin Carter, an outreach coordinator for Occupy Sacramento, told the Bee.