On behalf of the Committee for Social Justice, I want to address the issue of the proposed ordinance on sleeping and camping to be considered by the District Board.
As you may know, our organization works with the homeless and defends them in the courts. We have recently won a significant victory in the appeals court which underscores the possibility of making a successful “necessity defense” for those who violate city or county restrictions on sleeping or camping. Judges and juries are now clearly obligated to consider a defense based upon the fact that homeless men and women have no choice in breaking such laws, given the absence of alternatives. In such cases, they can (and should) be acquitted of breaking the law.
The Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District is now proposing their own ordinance on camping and sleeping in IVRPD-owned parks. As I understand the proposed ordinance, it offers the homeless the chance to leave the park without penalty (a good and nice touch), but then subjects them, should they return within 24 hours, to fines up to $1,000 or sentences of up to six months in jail. Presumably, they have based these penalties on existing laws in other jurisdictions, but surely they understand such laws were drafted long ago and have proven over time ineffective and wrongheaded.
Moreover, the penalties proposed clearly have little relation to the “crimes” involved and make no sense now that we understand, as a community, the situation in which the homeless find themselves; they seem both excessive and cruel. Defining the “crime” as a misdemeanor will lead, in the long run, to pointless and expensive jury trials, wasting both time and money, and producing far more acquittals than convictions.
Whatever the laws elsewhere, does the IVRPD as a group and as individuals really feel they are following the dictates of justice or conscience in making a law such as this? If they think for themselves, do they really believe that up to six months in jail is the right penalty for men and women who have nowhere to go? Do they not understand the extent to which such laws can ruin not only lives but also the fabric of the community and the decencies that ought to exist among us? Are they oblivious to the violence this allows those with homes and money and privilege to do to those who lack them?
What they propose violates not only the human rights of the homeless; the penalties suggested violate the norms of decency required of every human being, and they do violence to all citizens who believe their community ought to be marked by decency, justice, generosity of spirit and sympathy for suffering others.
The IVRPD must remember that the homeless are simply ordinary citizens down on their luck or buffeted by fate. They have been priced out of the housing market by several factors, not least of them the vast influx of students seeking housing brought into the area by the university. At most, homeless people on Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability receive $750 or so per month; most receive far less. They are decent people struggling to survive, and any solution to the sleeping/camping issue must begin with the attempt to recognize or satisfy their need for a place to go. Trying to keep them out of the parks simply forces the homeless into other areas of the community, creating still more (and often worse) problems.
The point is every city and every area of every city has its share of homeless. New laws do not make them disappear. They do not go away. The only conceivable solution to their problems, and those of the community, is to establish a legitimate place for them to be. It is our feeling at the Committee that no new laws should be adopted unless, at the same time, places are created for the homeless to legally sleep or camp.
In recent months, both the city and the county of Santa Barbara seem to have recognized this and have held off making new homeless laws while at the same time attempting to provide legal places for the homeless to sleep and creating task forces charged with finding solutions to the problem of the homeless that work for all citizens and, above all, for those forced to live on the streets.
We urge the IVRPD to adopt a similar approach.
Peter Marin is the chair of the Committee for Social Justice.