California Cities Band Together To Preserve Their Right To Treat Homeless People As Criminals

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

A group of California towns is fighting for their right to criminalize homelessness as state lawmakers weigh new protections for the destitute on Tuesday.

The League of California Cities (LCC) is opposing a new statewide “Right to Rest” bill protecting homeless people’s right to sleep and eat in public. The bill would pre-empt local ordinances that impose fines and jail terms for homeless people over their use of public spaces for non-criminal activity. Such local efforts to make homelessness illegal have cropped up all around the country in recent years, even as homelessness advocates have piled up evidence that it is far cheaper to provide permanent housing to the homeless than it is to lock them up.

The “Right to Rest” law, which gets its first hearing before a Senate committee on Tuesday afternoon, is inspired by a rapid uptick in law enforcement targeting of the unsheltered and a new understanding of how many California towns have laws that criminalize homeless people’s day-to-day activities. Law students from Berkeley found more than 500 separate anti-homeless laws in a review of just 58 cities’ codes, and concluded that California cities are twice as likely as other American towns to ban homeless people from sleeping in their cars.

Their report found that arrests for vagrancy offenses have surged as arrests for disorderly conduct slipped, “suggesting that homeless people are being punished for their status, not their behavior.” That attitude was on full display in San Rafael, CA, earlier this year when Mayor Gary Phillips closed a city park favored by the homeless because “I want to break the cycle so this is not a place for them to hang out.”

The bill up for a hearing Tuesday is broadly written, but intended to “end the criminalization of the non-criminal activities of life exercised by homeless people” in public spaces. Its author notes federal findings that laws like the ones LCC is working to defend are ineffective at protecting the public interest and even exacerbate homelessness by adding criminal records and institutionalization to an already long list of challenges. The LCC’s legislative letter against the bill argues that it would undermine the basic definition of property rights that “are the foundation of our social order,” and grant special rights to anyone defined as homeless. The group has asked member towns to send letters of opposition to the senator sponsoring the bill.

“Right to Rest” is just one piece of homelessness legislation facing the state this session, and looking at it in connection with the others makes the LCC’s position harder to understand. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D) has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s financing system for affordable housing that would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into construction and upkeep of buildings that could keep the working poor off the streets.

The LCC supports those Atkins bills, and claims that its opposition to “Right to Rest” is consistent with that affordable housing stance. LCC spokeswoman Eva Spiegel told ThinkProgress that the group supports Atkins’ ideas because they correspond with a national consensus “that the key to helping the homeless get back on their feet is through a combination of housing and supportive services.”

But the criminalization law “creates another excuse for not making the commitment to house and serve the homeless,” Spiegel said. Spiegel declined to clarify exactly how decriminalizing homelessness would distract from the holistic efforts that LCC supports.

It isn’t an obvious connection. Criminalizing homeless people’s sleeping habits, minimal property holdings, and access to fresh food doesn’t do anything to facilitate their getting into permanent supportive housing. Cities that have committed to the criminalization path have sometimes found themselves on the wrong end of the courts, as in the case of Fort Lauderdale, FL and Dallas, TX.

If the goal is to devote more resources to housing and counseling solutions that are proven to be effective, criminalizing people’s behavior when they don’t have access to a house may actively get in the way. One study has found that it costs over $30,000 per year in law enforcement and health care expenses to leave a homeless person on the street and criminalize her behavior, but barely $10,000 a year to put him into a permanent housing unit.

Update:

A previous version of this article referred to the Speaker of the California State Assembly as Sheila Atkins. She is Toni Atkins. We regret the error.