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'Homeless Bill of Rights' Seeks Legal Protections for Those on the Streets

Dec 12 2012 - 4:32pm

A new push for a statewide “Homeless Bill of Rights” could lead to free legal representation for anyone citied under laws such as San Francisco’s sit-lie law or anti-panhandling ordinance.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 5, as a response to what he said was a national trend of enforcing laws on public behaviors related to homelessness.

If it becomes law, California’s homeless residents would have the same anti-discrimination protections for their housing status as others do for race, sexual orientation and other personal characteristics.

“We need to stop criminalizing the behavior of people who have nowhere else to turn,” Ammiano said. “People who are in need of mental health services or who have lost jobs and their homes are being told, ‘Move along or go to jail.’”

The bill would bar discriminating against homeless people while they seek or maintain tax-funded benefits. It also asserts a right to be in public places, personal property, use of public facilities, confidentiality of medical records and legal representation in low-level criminal proceedings — infractions, as opposed to misdemeanors. Rhode Island enacted a similar law in June.

But the thrust of the state legislation is to challenge local ordinances making infractions of sitting on sidewalks or loitering, which allies of homeless people say are disproportionately enforced on low-income people.

Failing to appear in court to answer charges can lead to jail time. The bill, said Ammiano spokesman Carlos Alcala, intends to prevent scenarios similar to Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” in which a stolen loaf of bread leads to years in jail.

“That’s the sort of thing people are sent for 19 years for, and are turned into criminals for doing so,” Alcala said.

The right to legal counsel would extend to homeless people in any judicial proceeding. The cost of legal counsel for these purposes is not specified in the bill.

Director Paul Boden of the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project homeless lobbying group, said laws that penalize poverty-related acts were preceded by those that targeted groups ranging from disabled people to Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930s.

“From the ‘ugly laws’ of the mid-19th century — which made it a crime to have a visible disability in public — through the anti-Okie law of the Great Depression — which made it a crime for poor people to enter the state — and up through the present, state and local governments have used unjust laws to punish or conceal poor people,” he said.

The group surveyed more than 800 homeless people throughout the U.S. and found that three-fourths have been stopped by police for sleeping, sitting or loitering outdoors. Half said the appearance of homelessness prompted contact with law enforcement.

A Public Press analysis earlier this year found that over a five-year period police issued almost 40,000 tickets to homeless people for a host of low-level offenses.

Such priorities should switch from policing to helping people leave homelessness, said Colleen Rivecca, policy and advocacy coordinator of Homeless Youth Alliance, an organization in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood serving clients in their teens and 20s.

“Especially in the Haight, we have seen laws that are supposed to apply equally to everyone be selectively enforced against homeless people,” she said. “We need to shift our focus from enforcing laws that are meant to prohibit the existence of homeless people to proactive policies that can build a foundation for the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

But Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the Castro and parts of the Mission, is against the bill. Earlier this year, the board passed Wiener’s ordinance expanding a camping ban to two plazas in his district. The proposed state law could override such efforts.

“I don’t support this effort to undermine local laws that prevent public spaces from becoming homeless encampments,” he wrote in a Facebook posting. “Public spaces are for everyone, and it doesn’t build great neighborhoods to allow people to turn those public spaces into sleeping quarters.”

The bill is expected to have its first hearing in the Capitol in March.