California – Last week, California State Senator Carol Liu (D – District 25) introduced legislation targeted at ending the alarming trend of cities passing laws that criminalize the basic civil rights of homeless individuals. SB 608, known as the Right to Rest Act, would, amongst other things, protect the rights of homeless people to move freely, rest, eat and perform religious observations in public space as well as protect the right to occupy a legally parked motor vehicle.
“It’s time to address poverty, mental health, and the plight of the homeless head-on as a social issue and not a criminal issue,” says State Senator Liu. “Citing homeless people for resting in a public space can lead to their rejection for jobs, education loans, and housing, further denying them a pathway out of poverty.”
A recent report by the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic (2016 update) suggests that the number of anti-homeless laws passed by California municipalities has risen sharply in recent years. In total, the 58 researched in the study have enacted at least 500 anti-homeless – nearly nine laws per city on average. These laws prohibit the same activities at SB 608 aims to protect.
“Everyone sleeps, eats, and sits, but only some get tickets or go to jail for it,” says Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which coordinates the coalition of 140 organizations across the state that is supporting the Right to Rest Act. “Criminalization only makes things worse for people living on the streets. We applaud Senator Liu’s leadership, and looked forward to working with her in protecting the civil rights of homeless individuals and refocusing attention on solutions the end homelessness.”
The growing criminalization of homelessness is not unique to California. It reflects a national trend that is increasingly being challenged in federal courts. In December of last year, a federal judge suspended a Ft. Lauderdale law banning public food sharing after it received national attention when a 90-year old resident was arrested twice for serving meals to homeless individuals. In June 2014, a different federal court struck down an ordinance in Los Angeles banning people from sleeping in their vehicles - arguing that it discriminated against the poor.
“Recent court rulings have shown that these types of laws are not only immoral and unjust, but illegal,” stated Eric Ares of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “They do not stop crime, but rather punish people for being poor and homeless. Cities are not going to ticket their way out of homelessness. Housing is the only solution, but until then we must continue to protect the civil rights of all people. We are hopeful that by focusing less on enforcement of unjust laws, cities can start reallocating resources to housing and services.”
Similar bills have been introduced in Oregon and Colorado.
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