California Works to Pass a Homeless Bill of Rights

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.


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A homeless individual sits on the sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Last week the California Assembly’s Judiciary Committee passed AB 5, the Homeless Bill of Rights, by a vote of 7 to 2. At a time when homelessness is increasingly criminalized, this is an important step towards helping people instead of punishing them for not having a home. Advocates overcame strong opposition to the bill, in part through a grassroots movement of homeless and poor people that mobilized hundreds of people to rally and lobby the Democratic members of the committee.

There are now approximately 160,000 men, women and children who experience homelessness in California on a daily basis, about 20 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. The state ranks second worst in the number of homeless children, and third worst in the percentage of children who are homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. A 2011 U.S. Conference of Mayors report attributed the rise in homelessness across the nation — despite the recovering economy — primarily to unemployment and a lack of affordable housing, in that order.

Yet the response by political leaders in California and other states hasn’t been a sympathetic one — it’s largely been to prosecute those who are struggling.

A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty notes that criminalization of homelessness has taken many forms, including: enactment of laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces of cities without sufficient shelter or affordable housing; selective enforcement against homeless people for violating seemingly neutral laws like loitering, jaywalking or open container ordinances; sweeps to drive homeless people out of areas — which often results in the destruction of their personal property, including medications and personal documents; punishing people for begging or panhandling; and restricting groups from sharing food with homeless people in public areas.

“What cities and counties are doing right now to respond to homelessness isn’t helping, it’s making the problem worse,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, another cosponsor of the legislation.

In contrast, some of the measures proposed in the Homeless Bill of Rights include the creation of hygiene centers with bathrooms and showers; allowing people to rest, sit or sleep in public spaces; access to counsel during civil prosecutions; and protecting people who offer food in public places. It would also instruct local governments to track laws and arrests that target homeless people and report them to the district attorney.

In this Sept. 18, 2012 picture, Homeless veteran George Krider poses for a portrait at a homeless shelter in San Diego. Krider has lived on and off the streets since leaving the navy with the rank of Petty Officer Second Class. Despite budget increases and an aggressive strategy, the Obama administration struggles to make good on its audacious promise: End homelessness among veterans by 2015. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

“This bill is really about basic justice,” said Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who authored the bill. “People who are homeless not only have to struggle with life on the street, [but] the indignity of being treated like criminals because they have nowhere to eat, sit or sleep except in public.”

Bartholow was particularly moved by testimony from homeless people from Los Angeles who were woken up and arrested at 6:02 am due to a law against sleeping in public past 6. Another disabled woman in a wheelchair had lived on the same street corner for many years and been arrested more than a hundred times.

“Not for committing a crime, not for blocking a street or sidewalk — just for sitting there in her wheelchair,” said Bartholow.

Bartholow said that too many homeless people also end up in jail because they can’t pay the citations they receive for sitting in a public space. “So they have to spend time behind bars, because they sat peaceably in a public space, because they have no private space to sit in,” she said.

The bill now goes to the Appropriations Committee, where costs will be considered for measures such as the hygiene centers, legal representation and reporting requirements of local jurisdictions. Bartholow said that advocates will look for ways to “ameliorate costs,” but that this bill is a critical step in changing how we address homelessness and poverty as a society.

“The greatest misconception about this bill is that it somehow makes things more dangerous by allowing people to rest in public places,” she said. “But the bill in no way protects malicious or antagonistic behavior, or blocking doorways or pathways. It protects people’s right to rest — which is a human need. People who don’t have a private space to do that need to be able to do that somewhere. And sometimes the only place available is a public space.”

You can follow the campaign to pass this bill here.


Greg Kaufmann is a Nation contributor covering poverty in America. His work has also appeared on Common DreamsAlternet, Tikkun.org, NPR.org, CBSNews.com and MichaelMoore.com. He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/elijio.gerald.olivari Elijio Gerald Olivari

    This is so really real– its shameful in a nation such as ours …

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-Paschal/100000100761170 Martha Paschal

    Public toilet, showering and laundering should be included.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mimi-Higham/100000738909543 Mimi Higham

    During the depression there were tent cities, but can they have them now NO, the “neighbors” dont want to put up with the rif-raff. Set up someplace where these plp can go to have a place to rest go the the bathroom, take a shower be safe. A place a family can call home, because it is alot of families. Only by the grace of God it isnt you, but it could be you or your family that is faced with something like this.

  • Pragmatic Idealist

    Panhandling infringes on the rights of other citizens. A person living in an urban environment should not have to run a gauntlet in order to conduct his or her daily business, and business establishments should not be subjected to seeing their customers continually harassed. Also, encouraging people to live in walkable places and to use public transportation requires maintaining some minimum standards for sanitation, public health, and safety.

    While standardizing treatment of these citizens across municipalities may help prevent them from dumping these issues onto neighboring jurisdictions, the State is not being sensitive to the actual problems associated with homelessness for the whole of a society, particularly when such a huge disparity exists between rich and poor cities. Concentrating poverty and further reducing socioeconomic mobility, as such, may be an unintended consequence of this proposed legislation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eugene.spuglio Eugene Spuglio

    The Supreme Court has ruled that a person can’t be arrested because of the inability to pay the fine, there must be a hearing first on the persons ability to pay. 461 U.S. 660, 103 S.Ct. 2064, 76 L.Ed.2d 221. Danny R. BEARDEN, Petitioner v. GEORGIA. No. 81-6633. I wonder how many public defenders know this?

  • Steve Paul

    There is no google + button to add this page to my google stream?

  • http://www.facebook.com/prostamusic Prosta Chudo

    nobody has to run a damn gauntlet by panhandlers they rarely get in anyone way.

  • JonThomas

    How does panhandling ‘infringe(s) on the rights of other citizens’?

    Are citizens forced to give?

    If a ‘panhandler’ is harassing a person, is that not a separate infraction?

    Are all those tv commercials asking for donations infringing on your ‘rights’?

    How about all advertisements?

    Billboards that can be seen from public areas? Are they ‘infringing’ on your rights?

  • JDon357

    California recently pushed, may have passed, a similar bill for illegal immigrants. Their stated goal was to become a ‘sanctuary state’ for aliens who are in our country illegally.
    With 20% of the homeless – I assume CA is also a sanctuary for them. There are two possible reasons for successfully attracting these two demographics. One, is that their leaders are altruistic, Christian and compassionate. The more believable is that they see these two groups as present and future Democrat Party voters. Of course, CA receives taxpayer funding through the Federal Government for programs like this. So, I’m paying for things I don’t agree with. I think churches should have the right to play the role of compassionate supporter for the homeless, and not be pre-empted to the point of being put out of business by politicians.

  • Anonymous

    Church homeless programs mandates “JESUS SAVES” conversion in a prison-like environment.

  • Anonymous

    Politicians & Charities PANHANDLE for their money and THEY LIE!

  • Anonymous

    If any of you housed people walked into a homeless shelter…YOU’D BE AUTOMATICALLY DIAGNOSED IMMEDIATELY as “SERIOUSLY MENTALLY ILL”, “ADDICTED”, and “ALCOHOLIC”…just walking in the door. You would NOT get housing or employment help; you’d get a mat on the floor, in a jammed-packed human warehouse, and signed up for Drug & Alcohol “TREATMENT”; housing & employment is YEARS AWAY….

  • http://www.facebook.com/ReddingLoavesAndFishes Chris Solberg

    Please take the time to fight for our less fortunate brothers and sisters and the American concept that the nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal will not tolerate practices and laws that unfairly single out homeless people and criminalize them for everyday living and life-sustaining activities

    http://reddinghomeless.blogspot.com/2013/04/redding-homeless-blog-california.html

  • miraclesmom5501

    I have been homeless and never stank, begged for money, stole, didnt do drugs, or sit there drunk in public. I never slept around people or passed out on the streets. I worked. I even got 3 jobs so after a few paychecks i could get a place. I washed peoples cars or made jewelry to get enough money to buy food and used the restroom to clean up and use a laundrymat to keep my clothes clean. I chose not to live off other peoples hard earned money. I chose not to be lazy. I chose not to give up. I didnt have a college education….. now an lvn. Have a home. Have food in my kitchen. I have power in my house. But it isnt handed to you. You have to get up and choose to change. So helping people stay homeless isnt going to stop or decrease homlessness its going to enable that lifestyle.

  • Good Friend

    You were homeless? Why?

  • Dragonlady23

    I pray that California will be able to pass this bill. Poor people are people too. And I hope that once this bill passes that other states will follow California’s lead and pass it. If we don’t start practicing compassion and empathy towards our fellow men and women we are not going to survive. It is that simple. We are putting money before people and it is making our society more violent and making people sick and it is searing our collective conscience so that we are being consumed by our social ills. This bill shows that California is truly trying to “turn a corner” and actually shift the paradigm of our society. More power to them!

  • http://twitter.com/jamenta John Amenta

    What an utter right-wing piece of bigoted garbage. Do you think homeless children go around drunk in public?

    This is one of the most callous, utterly inhumane posts I have read in some time. It’s what is wrong with right-wing garbage human beings today: their total lack of empathy for anyone, their insinuated argument that homeless people are lazy and no goods and therefore don’t deserve anyone’s help.
    Right-wingers like maraclesmom5501 here ignore with bigoted willful blinders the realities of our economy. The reality of just how much Americans are being exploited by the rich and corporate America right now. The reality that for every 3 unemployed Americans, only one job is available. The reality that we have the worst wealth inequality since our gilded robber baron age.

    This kind of attitude displayed here by mom5501 is the kind of human excrement and justification that the Nazis used to gas so many in the 1940s – this folks is the EXACT SAME KIND OF LOGIC being used by moms5501 here. This isn’t American values – it’s corporate hate values. It’s phony values by a phony person.

  • Diana Hagerty

    Just because you were able to make it doesn’t mean everyone else can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps’. People need support to change. Also, considering the dire situation we’re in as a nation, even professionals who are educated can’t get jobs. Bottom line is you shouldn’t criminalize being poor.

  • Anonymous

    You used a restroom? Whose restroom and water did you use? That you think you did it all by yourself in a vacuum is delusional.

  • Anonymous

    LOL the old canard about Dems wanting more illegals so they can grow up to be Dem voters.

  • Anonymous

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-boden/the-quality-of-whose-life_b_749280.html Explains how we got those poor laws and what we can DO about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ForKnight2 Kathy Gray

    I am homeless have been for a few years now. My husband an industrial maintenance engineer, but because he is 54 it is hard to get hired. Age discrimination is ramped in California, and other places. If you want to help homeless people get back up on their feet, (trust me most of us would rather be working and living in a place then on the streets) but if you want to help homeless help them get their credit rate back up. You cannot rent an apartment with a bad credit rating and most jobs now do credit checks to measure the character of the prospective employee, and will use that against them. The homeless in America are the fastest growing minority group we are openly shunned and discriminated against.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=689913316 B Cayenne Bird

    Key words “I even got 3 jobs” – if you have a record, getting a job is almost next to impossible. You need transportation, an address, clothing, and do keep in mind that many of the homeless are mentally ill, elderly or disabled. Very few people can make it on public services and they take years to get, if at all. The system is broken, people are broken, it’s too harsh right now. If we have money to waste on war and prisons, we have money to spend on people.

  • Marie Love

    Hi, my name is Marie. I am a highschool senior from an Oakland charter school. I believe that all people have the right to sleep and rest and find ways to get the essential things you need in life to survive. No person should have their hustle taken away from them if that is all they have. Especially by creating laws making it harder for them to get food, shelter and etc. What they are doing isn’t helping these run down shelters aren’t enough anymore. They need rehabilitation, stability,training, care all the things you would need to have a comfortable stable life. For instance, prisoners are just thrown out of prison letting the door slam behind them with no help at all. They are set for failure once they leave those prison walls. For the ones who have been kept in solitude, have no family, etc, they now have to get accustomed to the streets. They have no job connections, know nothing about shelters especially if they were shipped to another prison far from where they originally lived. I don’t understand how they are expected to get back on their feet obtain a job and much more if they have nothing but the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. The government whoops and complains about jails being crowded and packed yet when prisoners become “free” they are set up to be put right back in jail. Committing people of petty crimes, waste of money especially someone who’s just trying to get some sleep. This is why I believe there should be a bill of rights for the homeless. It will protect them and give them the help they need so that they can finish living there lives in a good way and not having to go off on a scavenger hunt for something to eat. But until then they have the right to ask others for help the government isn’t helping them, they have the right to sleep in parks since public sheltering isn’t available. What we are doing today is not enough at all and this bill will protect the already homeless and the rest that will become homeless. We can prevent this from happening by providing sufficient aid for our people in need but we have to have them hear us and stop being a stepping stool for our government.

  • Anonymous

    This is a republican and she has never been homeless

  • Anonymous

    A homeless woman veteran in Lakeside, CA died of horrific burns in a wildfire last week. She was camping along a riverbed in 100 degree heat, with no place else to go. Yet our state legislators are allowing cities to make it illegal to sleep in public places, where there are still safety concerns (another homeless man was beaten to death recently) but at least burning to death in a wildfire wouldn’t be one of them.

  • Porcia