California lawmakers sanction discrimination against homeless residents

“The future is doomed.”


For the third straight time, California lawmakers have rejected the idea that homeless people have the same right to exist in public spaces as the rest of us.

On Tuesday, a senate committee stopped Senate Bill 876 from proceeding any further down the law-making assembly line, deflating homeless rights’ supporters who hoped the third time might be the charm. The legislative proposal, authored by Sen. Carol Liu, would have afforded people experiencing homelessness free movement in public spaces—including crazy stuff like the ability to sit and rest, eat and accept food, pray or meditate, and sleep without fear of being arrested for doing so. And if they were still hassled because of their housing status, the bill offered them the right to pursue civil damages of up to $1,000 per violation.

(Though they would have to be able to afford attorneys to assert their rights.)

Coral Feigin, of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, summarized the mood of those who think of homeless people as, well, people:

“While we are all feeling immense disappointment by the loss of this legislation, the true disappointment comes from knowing that in the eyes of the state of California, poor and homeless people do not deserve the most basic rights to exist in public without fear of violence, harassment, ticketing or jailing at the hands of the police,” Feigin said in a statement.

This time it was the Senate Housing and Transportation Committee that stymied the legislative attempt to provide homeless residents with the right to rest, which, in the past, was defeated as the broader Homeless Bill of Rights and the Right to Rest Act earlier this year.

After each previous defeat, Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Youth Homeless Project, says homeless rights’ supporters tried to narrow the focus of legislation in a good-faith effort to address the concerns of the other side. But that other side kept coming up with new reasons to reject anti-discrimination protections for people experiencing homelessness.

In a release, the Western Regional Advocacy Project compared anti-homeless laws that make it illegal to sleep or accept food in public spaces to discriminatory policies of the past, including “Jim Crow laws, ableist Ugly Laws and xenophobic Anti-Okie laws.”

Anti-homeless laws are simply a new iteration of these laws that have always existed in our history to remove certain people from public view and strip them of their rights.

SB 876 defined public space as “any property that is owned by a government entity or upon which there is an easement for public use and that is held open to the public, including, but not limited to, plazas, courtyards, parking lots, sidewalks, public transportation facilities and services, public buildings, shopping centers, and parks. The ability to rest shall not apply to a space during a time when it is closed to all persons or when a fee is required for entry or use.”

According to a committee analysis of the bill, opponents claimed it would somehow “undermine existing efforts to address homelessness” and instead propose “providing resources to provide permanent housing beds and accompanying social services such as mental health treatment, job training, and addiction counseling.”

But that’s a disingenuous argument, as the bill simply would have protected homeless people from discrimination and wouldn’t prevent any government or agency from providing those resources. If anything, all the bill would have done is give homeless people the chance to come out of the shadows and show how much bigger our housing crisis really is.

And maybe that’s what opponents are afraid of.

It’s much easier for city officials in Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Rocklin—all of whom signed onto the opposition, along with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and Downtown Del Paso Boulevard Partnership—to soft-sell solutions if you can falsely claim the “homeless problem” is smaller than it is.

And scaring people who already exist on the margins into staying out of sight, or disappearing them through arrest and prosecution, is a great way to ensure your community does as little as possible to actually reduce homelessness.

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