May 10 2013
Last week the California Assembly’s Judiciary Committee passed AB 5, the Homeless Bill of Rights, by a vote of 7 to 2. At a time when homelessness is increasingly criminalized, this is an important step towards helping people instead of punishing them for not having a home. Advocates overcame strong opposition to the bill, in part through a grassroots movement of homeless and poor people that mobilized hundreds of people to rally and lobby the Democratic members of the committee.
There are now approximately 160,000 men, women and children who experience homelessness in California on a daily basis, about 20 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. The state ranks second worst in the number of homeless children, and third worst in the percentage of children who are homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. A 2011 U.S. Conference of Mayors report attributed the rise in homelessness across the nation — despite the recovering economy — primarily to unemployment and a lack of affordable housing, in that order.
Yet the response by political leaders in California and other states hasn’t been a sympathetic one — it’s largely been to prosecute those who are struggling.
A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty notes that criminalization of homelessness has taken many forms, including: enactment of laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces of cities without sufficient shelter or affordable housing; selective enforcement against homeless people for violating seemingly neutral laws like loitering, jaywalking or open container ordinances; sweeps to drive homeless people out of areas — which often results in the destruction of their personal property, including medications and personal documents; punishing people for begging or panhandling; and restricting groups from sharing food with homeless people in public areas.
“What cities and counties are doing right now to respond to homelessness isn’t helping, it’s making the problem worse,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, another cosponsor of the legislation.