California Bill Defends the Right of the Homeless to Rest in Public

In January, California State Senator Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) introduced a bill that aims to protect the right of California’s homeless to “rest” in public spaces.

Senate Bill 876 would de-criminalize homelessness by ultimately limiting local sanitation and law enforcement agencies’ ability to treat sleeping on the street as a criminal act, and remove and destroy homeless people’s belongings.

“The bill would have immeasurable impact,” said Eric Ares, a community organizer and communications coordinator for Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), an organizing group focused on defending human rights in downtown and south L.A.

In Los Angeles, “street sweeps” are carried out prominently under the auspices of the Bureau of Sanitation’s Operation Healthy Streets (OHS), which has been seen dismantling and disposing of encampments, according to LA CAN. Homeless advocates on Skid Row see SB 876 as a critical step to supporting the rights of the homeless population while the city and county begin to carry out the long process of implementing the recently approved Homeless Strategy, a roughly 240-page plan presenting possible solutions for the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. Opponents argue that SB 876 reduces the incentive for homeless individuals to look for housing, and restricts law enforcement’s efficacy in their neighborhoods.

SB 876 asserts that homeless people cannot be discriminated against simply because they are unhoused. This means that they have the right to “to use and to move freely in public spaces, the right to rest in public spaces and to protect oneself from the elements, the right to eat in any public space in which having food is not prohibited, and the right to perform religious observances in public spaces.”

The treatment of homeless people on sidewalks and in public spaces varies throughout the state, and even within different municipalities of Los Angeles County. The lack of uniform policy and handling by enforcement agencies means that oftentimes individuals can get pushed between different cities.

“We applaud the efforts some cities have undertaken to provide programs, but we do argue that providing bus passes (as some do) is simply exporting the problem to another jurisdiction,” said Suzanne Reed, chief of staff for Senator Liu, in an email.

This lack of coordination and cooperation between jurisdictions within L.A. County is something that city and county leaders are working to address through the strategies approved as part of the Comprehensive Homeless Strategies Report, a collaborative project of the City and County of Los Angeles.

The report is a 237-page document resulting from a months-long effort between the two agencies as well as nonprofit organizations, community development groups and other local leaders. The final report is multifaceted and focuses on preventative strategies to protect those who are at higher risk of homelessness, such as those who are mentally ill or recently released from jail; centralized case management to better coordinate the multiple services that are available to the homeless; and housing services to provide emergency housing to people in crisis, among other strategies.

However, the executive summary also notes that “today’s homeless crisis did not develop overnight, nor will it be eliminated any time soon.” While the report outlines costs of the services it proposes, it also states that new funding sources and strategies still need to be identified, and certain fiscal decisions are being deferred to the 2016-17 budget cycle. With the massive help proposed by the county and state in the years to come, little can change for homeless people on the streets today, upping the significance of SB 876.

Confrontations with law enforcement agencies continue to force L.A.’s homeless on Skid Row and throughout the county to pack up and move their belongings from public spaces or risk receiving a ticket, getting arrested, or having their belongings disposed of thanks to OHS, which began in 2013.

OHS is an ordinance that works to clean up “trash, debris, sharps, human waste, and other abandoned materials/waste” of Skid Row, according to a bureau memo. The OHS teams are instructed to “work around homeless encampments while flushing, vacuuming, and sanitizing the sidewalks and streets.”

Advocates say that “working around” the homeless is open to interpretation, which typically results in sanitation’s workers throwing away items that they deem “abandoned.” Laws specific to L.A. City permit a homeless person to keep a tent up between the hours of 9:00 pm and 6:00 am. However, if the tent is up outside of those hours, the individual can be ticketed. And missing a court date for that ticket can be grounds for arrest.

This is part of a cycle that the individuals of Skid Row become trapped in, said Ares of LA CAN. When the street cleanings occur, a homeless individual might get a ticket for “littering,” which can lead to a missed court date, which can lead to an arrest, which can lead to their belongings being considered “abandoned” and disposed of while that individual is in jail.

Or alternatively, “they can’t leave their tent to go to their case manager meeting because while they’re gone their tent might be swept,” Ares said. “It really does create this race to the bottom effect.”

Despite support from Ares’ group and 45 similarly aligned organizations listed on the bill’s fact sheet, SB 876 faces opposition from dozens of cities and towns whose law enforcement officers’ hands would be tied by this legislation. Business interest groups like the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce are also against the bill. In addition to concerns about public safety and the negative impact that homeless people on the streets could have on their local businesses, opponents argue that permitting the homeless to rest or having their belongings on the street might reduce the incentive for the homeless to look for more permanent housing options.

Yet proponents feel that the right to rest in public and longer term housing solutions are not mutually exclusive. “Many cities are interpreting the bill as interfering with their authority to protect the health and safety of the community or prohibit camping. It does not and that is not its intent. The measure is intended to prevent local authorities from passing ordinances that enable them to cite or arrest homeless people just because they are homeless (or to do so even without an ordinance),” wrote Reed.

SB 876’s proponents believe the bill protects the homeless while leadership continues to put together the other pieces of the puzzle, such as funding the solutions outlined in the Comprehensive Homeless Strategies report.

SB 876 is currently waiting for markup in committee.



Elizabeth Green

Elizabeth Green is a candidate for a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the Media for Policy Change course offered at Price.

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