Cities in the United States have a long history of criminalizing the public presence of people they consider undesirable. In the late 1800s, Southern cities established “sundown towns,” laws that restricted black people from being outside after sunset. Throughout the 19th century, cities ratified “ugly laws,” banning people who were diseased or deformed from being outside. During the Great Depression, California cities passed an “anti-Okie” law, making it illegal to assist poor people entering the state.
Today, society’s target is homeless people. Beginning in the 1980s when the federal government slashed the affordable housing budget, cities have enacted thousands of laws to criminalize basic human needs such as resting, sleeping, standing, and sitting, as well as acts like panhandling and food sharing.
That’s why the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a network of homeless advocacy groups on the West Coast, is pushing to pass the Right to Rest Actin Oregon, Colorado and California this year. The act, the first of its kind, would protect all residents’ right to rest, allowing people to occupy and use public spaces without fear of discrimination. The legislation was written based off interviews with more than 1,400 homeless people. It would also serve as a model legislation that could be enacted in every state across the nation.
While representatives in Oregon and Colorado are sponsoring the bill, no one has yet been willing to sponsor the bill in California. February 27 is the last day for the bill to be introduced into the legislature for this session—meaning if no one puts their name on it, the act is out for this year. The final push to get the Right to Rest Act introduced in California comes on the heels of a new research report revealing the extent of the criminalization of homelessness.
Paul Boden, executive director of WRAP, said, “The fact that we have the most in-depth research by far in California and we’re having the hardest time by far getting a sponsor for the bill is a really sad statement about the politics of business and gentrification in the state.”
New Findings on the Criminalization of Homelessness in California
New research prepared for WRAP by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law details the impact criminalization has had on the homeless population in California, home to one in every five homeless people in the U.S. Researchers looked at a sample of 58 California cities and found 500 anti-homeless laws on the books—an average of nine laws per city. Each city has at least one code restricting daytime activities like resting, standing and sitting; 57 had codes restricting nighttime activities like sleeping, camping and lodging; 53 had codes restricting begging and panhandling; 12 had codes restricting food sharing. Some of these laws either overlap or criminalize the same action but in different locations.
“You can word these laws in different ways,” said Marina Fisher, a policy graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a researcher for the report. “You’ll have a city that has three different laws about begging. One is you can’t beg in public. One is you can’t beg near freeway onramps. You can’t beg in parks. And then you can’t be sitting on the sidewalk during these hours. And then another is if we catch you doing this twice in a row, it’s a bigger fee or penalty. There are a lot of variations.”
In addition to using anti-homeless municipal or state laws, cities also use other laws to criminalize homeless people. In San Diego, for instance, police have used a law intended to eliminate safety hazards around dumpsters to target the homeless population.
“These are laws that technically apply to everyone but anecdotally, people who appear to be homeless based on looks or demeanor are more likely to be targeted by police,” Fisher said. “One [San Diego] police officer even acknowledged that after state level laws got blocked by a lawsuit they looked through [local] laws and thought this one could be pretty applicable.”
With these laws on the book, homeless people are harassed by police, given citations, spend time in jail, and could end up with criminal records that further hinder them from finding housing or employment. In the report, a San Diego Police Department veteran told researchers that cops arrest homeless people if they presume that they could be “repeat offenders.” Fisher said her research team wasn’t able to get a larger picture of the impact of criminalization because cities don’t adequately track enforcement of these laws. Police also don’t document the housing status of those jailed.
But sending homeless people to jail is the inevitable consequence of these laws. A homeless man in San Francisco spent 30 days locked up for sitting on a milk crate, and faced up to two years in prison. And things could get worse. For homeless people who are mentally ill, police encounters to enforce these laws could be fatal. Last spring in New Mexico, Albuquerque police officers shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
Despite these severe consequences, there is no shortage of new anti-homeless legislation being passed. According to the report, these laws first emerged in the ’80s, as federal cuts to affordable housing drove people onto the streets. Cities were left with limited legal recourse due to a Supreme Court ruling a decade earlier that struck down a municipal vagrancy law. Ever since, there’s been a dramatic increase, with a majority of these laws—59 percent—enacted since 1990. Since 2010 alone, 55 new anti-homeless laws have been enacted in these cities. If the trend continues, researchers predict that California will enact 110 new anti-homeless laws by the end of the decade.
“I think that this report was an objective analysis really for people to understand that we are not treating people without homes right in California,” said Nathaniel Miller, a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a researcher for the report. “California, across most of the categories, has a higher prevalence of these laws compared to cities … in the other 49 states. Local city councils are writing these laws by the month that are continuing to restrict these people’s ability to live.”
Cities Create a Race to the Bottom
While California certainly faces a crisis, criminalization of the homeless has reached disastrous levels across the nation. Some law schools are working to forge coordination across schools to inspect homeless rights issues on a statewide level. Law students at Seattle University School of Law have begun similar research to Berkeley’s and are finding similar results.
“We do have some very hard data showing that there is very much a consistency in terms of the prevalence of these laws,” said Sara Rankin, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, who is working with students on the research.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. WRAP found in an earlier reportthat between 1979 and 1983, federally funded affordable housing was cut by approximately $50 billion, an amount that has never been fully restored. With homelessness on the rise ever since, cities have resorted to criminalization to appease residents and businesses and to give the appearance of having solved the crisis.
“I grew up in San Diego where there’s a huge homeless population,” Fisher said. “People would complain all the time to the police and government about, ‘I went downtown and there was a bunch of homeless people.’ So I think cities feel a lot of pressure to do something. It seems easier to say that you’re doing something by passing a law than investing millions of dollars in housing or counseling programs or retraining your police force to work differently. It’s shortsighted. And I think one of their hopes has been, that if they’re more restrictive than their neighbors, maybe they’ll push the homeless people out of their city and into neighboring cities, which at a state level doesn’t do anything; it’s counterproductive. But at a city level, it encourages a kind of race to the bottom.”
Boden said city officials sometimes don’t even try to conceal their efforts. He said mayors have gone to other cities to praise the effectiveness of criminalization.
“When we were having the hearings on sit/lie [in San Francisco] they brought up the mayor from Santa Cruz to talk about how great it’s worked there because it removed homeless people from the downtown area,” Boden said. “So they’re not even hiding that this is about getting rid of poor people. This isn’t about any other issue except removing people that they don’t like from local communities.”
The Push to Put People Over Profit and Politics
This is why WRAP is pushing for statewide legislation to squash this race to bottom among cities. In Oregon, Chip Shields of the state senate was the first to sponsor the Right to Rest Act, stating, “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 humanely under the law.”
Joe Salazar of the Colorado House of Representatives was next to sponsor the act. In both states, several state representatives have added their names to the bill. No California representative has yet offered to serve as a sponsor.
“It is a really disappointing shock no one has sponsored the bill in California,” said Boden. “And the fact that you have several sponsors in Oregon and several sponsors in Colorado—we actually anticipated those being a little harder because we have a lot more members in California. We came out of California. We have a Democratic controlled assembly and Senate and a Democratic governor. What we’re trying to say to these politicians: if not you, who?”
Politicians’ lack of courage in California may stem from the campaign’s history in the state. In 2012, former California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano introduced WRAP’s Homeless Bill of Rights, which included the Right to Rest Act’s anti-criminalization component as well as the right to legal counsel and the right to 24-hour access to hygiene centers. The Assembly’s Judiciary Committee approved the legislation but it later died in Appropriations.
“It gave too many loopholes for the opposition to plug into and avoid the race and class issues that are really behind the criminalization piece of it,” Boden said, adding that this year, WRAP is back with the Right to Rest Act—the core of the Homeless Bill of Rights.
Ammiano took a lot of heat from the League of California Cities, the Chamber of Commerce and the Police Officers Association for the bill, Boden said. The business improvement districts were the most vehemently opposed.
“When you look at how many business improvement districts we have in the state—we’re turning what we used to call neighborhoods into business improvement districts,’” Boden said. “A lot of politicians aren’t comfortable going up against this kind of opposition.”
But WRAP is still pushing for politicians to put people over politics and profit before the February 27 deadline.
“At some point somebody has to stand up and say this ain’t right,” Paul Boden said. “Some groups had to finally say, we’re going to fight Jim Crow. Some groups had to finally say, we’re going to fight ugly laws; we’re going to fight Japanese exclusion acts. Right now, today, we need to be that group.”