State Senator Carol Liu introduced the Right to Rest Act (SB 608) to the California State Senate on Friday to decriminalize the homeless by giving them access to public spaces without discrimination.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 congressional report, there are an estimated 136,826 homeless people in California. SB 608 would allow these Californians to move freely, sleep, eat, perform religious observations and occupy a legally parked vehicle in public without being subject to harassment or criminal sanctions. The idea for the bill was developed by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), an organization working to expose and eliminate civil rights abuses against homeless and impoverished citizens. The proposed legislation follows a report published by the Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC) at UC Berkeley on Feb. 19 which found a 77 percent increase in arrests for vagrancy offenses since 2000.
According to the SB 608 language, local governments throughout California have enacted ordinances criminalizing resting and eating in public places.
“These local ordinances do not reduce the incidence of homelessness or crime,” the bill language states. “Instead, they result in increased incarceration rates and financial indebtedness of people who simply have no means of support and prolong homelessness by making it more difficult for people to secure housing, employment and medical care.”
The bill language also states while the ordinances are meant to apply to all residents in a community, they routinely affect those who are assumed to be homeless based on their appearance.
“They disproportionately impact people without homes, who have no private place to rest or seek nourishment, and are often selectively applied by law enforcement to people based upon their appearance or an assumption of homelessness,” the bill language states.
WRAP executive director Paul Boden stated in a press release that he believes such ordinances are comparable to now-invalid laws marginalizing various populations, including African Americans.
“This is a major contribution to our understanding of how California cities have responded to homeless people,” Boden stated. “It’s all too reminiscent of Jim Crow, sundown town, anti-Okie and ‘ugly’ laws that targeted marginalized groups, and it confirms our own street outreach surveys of hundreds of homeless people, who are increasingly harassed and punished for their mere presence in public.”
Second-year public policy graduate student at UC Berkeley Marina Fisher co-authored the Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC) study released in February and said SB 608 aims to end the criminalization of homeless individuals by eliminating public discrimination rather than punishing behavioral crimes.
“It’s really important to realize that the laws we look at are nothing like that. They’re not behavioral crimes, they’re just laws about status,” Fisher said, “They are reminiscent of older types of laws that targeted people for existing or being present rather than for specific crimes.”
Fisher said she realized during her research while the city laws were not written specifically written to include the word homeless, they often target that demographic.
“When people like us camp out on the street for like the next iPhone or for like a concert or something, we’re not the people targeted by them,” Fisher said. “I can’t remember a friend of mine who is fairly affable and a college student and whatnot getting cited by the police for sitting outside. It is just really crazy to think that there’s so many of these laws that cities choose not to target at us but that impact people who were doing the same thing we do on a daily basis.”
Second-year graduate student at Berkeley Law School Lindsay Walter, who co-authored the Vagrancy Laws report, shared her findings with Liu due to the Senator’s history advocating for marginalized communities.
“She’s always been an advocate for marginalized communities and at risk communities, especially at risk youth and homeless youth,” Walter said. “One of her more recent platforms is working with the elderly, and she has always been a strong advocate for students of all ages. So this definitely fits right in with what she’s been doing her entire time in the senate.”
Walter said she believes SB 608 will have a positive impact on the issue of criminalizing the homeless.
“It’s kind of sending a message to cities that criminalizing people in this way is not solving the homelessness issue, and so sending that message that we need to do other things to help those who have no homes,” Walter said. “Whether that’s through providing affordable housing or more social services, criminalization isn’t the way to go.”