Citing a growing effort by local governments to use laws and business improvement districts to target the homeless and mold poorer neighborhoods in the interests of businesses and the wealthy, advocates say a state law is necessary to protect the basic rights of homeless citizens.
“Here in Los Angeles, and cities across this state, laws have been passed to criminalize the fact of being poor and homeless,” said Adam Rice, an organizer for the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “The Homeless Bill of Rights has five basic protections that allow for a minimum standard of living even though you are on the street.”
According to advocates, the Homeless Bill of Rights would ensure the right to:
- Move freely, rest, sleep, pray and be protected in public spaces without discrimination.
- Occupy a legally parked vehicle that is one’s home.
- Serve food to the homeless and eat in public.
- Legal counsel if being prosecuted.
- Twenty-four-hour access to hygiene facilities.
Rice cited Los Angeles Municipal Code section 41.18 (d), which prohibits anyone from sitting, lying or sleeping in a public space from the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., as an example of a law written specifically to target the homeless.
“In Los Angeles, if you are arrested for being homeless, it is called a ‘quality of life violation,’” he said. “Now how insulting is that? Because they are not talking about our quality of life. They are talking about the quality of life of some imagined person that may see us on the street in our most vulnerable position and decide that perhaps downtown LA is not a good place to invest their money.”
According to Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, the top three criminal offenses the homeless are committing are sleeping, sitting and standing still. Laws that cover “quality of life” issues, such as LA’s 41.18 (d) are thinly disguised codes that mirror previous discriminatory practices of local governments, such as anti-Okie laws, sundown towns and ugly laws, which targeted the homeless and disabled, said Boden.
“Local governments have the authority to police ‘time, place and manner restrictions’ in local communities,” he said. “The track record of using those laws in a discriminatory pattern is undeniable. We are trying to push legislation to say you’ve abused it, you’ve done it in racist and discriminatory ways, so we are taking that authority away from you.”
The campaign was launched in the courtyard of the Youth Burlington Apartments in Pico-Union. The apartments are for formerly homeless youths, between the ages of 18 to 24.
The Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, is a network of local social justice organizations focused on the civil and human rights of the poor and homeless. This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to get the Homeless Bill of Rights passed in Sacramento.
In April of this year, AB 5, also known as the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, passed the State’s Assembly Judiciary Committee 7 to 2. But the bill failed to gain further momentum.
The League of California Cities, the California Chamber of Commerce and business improvement districts lobbied against the proposed legislation. Those groups argued the bill would put a burden on local governments, such as having to provide hygiene facilities.
The California Chamber of Commerce called AB 5 a “job killer,” arguing that the bill exposed businesses to possible litigation because it created a “new protected classification of employees and customers.”
Currently three other states have homeless bills of rights: Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois. California’s version, said Boden, is similar to these, except that it addresses the issue of criminalizing the homeless population.
“We include that you can’t criminalize those five things: the sharing of food, resting [sitting or lying down], sleeping and living in a vehicle,” he said. “This bill is a pro-active response to being criminalized out of existence.”
The fact that business interests were against AB 5 is not surprising. In Los Angeles, business improvement districts and the Central City Association, a downtown business lobby, have advocated for tough policing measures targeting homeless people. But Boden said he doesn’t see the business community as the enemy in this fight. He said the campaign’s true antagonist is government and its economic attitudes.
“Our government right now is not of, for or by the people,” he said. “It is: Who’s making a profit, what’s good for business, and if it’s good for business, it’s good for America. That mindset, that government’s role is to facilitate the profit motive of private business, doesn’t make business the enemy, it makes government the enemy.”
Despite the failings of government, WRAP and others have a few allies in Sacramento. State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) had introduced AB 5 to the Assembly last year and will do so again this year. The question remains if homeless advocates can build a movement strong enough to counter the force and might of the business lobby and the preconceived notions of lawmakers.
“The thing with homelessness is: what do we have to lose?” he said. “Your ability to stand by your principles and what is right should be ten times greater.
“And, if you don’t fight,” he adds, “you’re going to be out of your neighborhood. Bottom line.”
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