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Let’s not make it a crime to be homeless

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By Paula Lomazzi, Executive Director of Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee and Staff Writer for Homeward Street Journal

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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My first night of homelessness I spent sleeping outside on the bank of the Sacramento River. The wind and the proximity to the water made it a bit colder than expected for a summer evening, but I had made my choice for the night and laid down in my sleeping bag. I felt vulnerable as a woman out alone all night, and I was frightened. Anxiety kept me awake until after midnight, at which time I heard gun shots coming from close by. A moment of terror, then the thought, “They aren’t here for me,” and I soon fell asleep.

I remained homeless through many hot summers and cold winters, as shelters were always full. My usual routine included finding a place later in the evening to lay out my tarp and sleeping bag. I would get up fairly early, do a quick cleanup to make sure I had left the area better than I had found it, pack up my cart, and be about my business for the day. Sometimes a police officer would find me in a state of what is termed “camping” by the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

Sacramento first enacted an anti-camping ordinance in 1987, not coincidentally following radical reductions in Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for affordable housing, which resulted in skyrocketing homeless populations throughout the United States. Sacramento’s current anti-camping ordinance makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to “camp, occupy camp facilities, or use camping paraphernalia” or to “store personal property.” In the definitions of the ordinance we find that “camp” has the obvious connotation of pitching a tent and setting up a camp, but it gets to the real target of this law by stating “to live temporarily in a camp facility or outdoors.” Living outdoors or in a motor vehicle—don’t do it! Storage of personal property can entail merely setting a backpack or sleeping bag for several minutes on the ground or sidewalk. The law does allow one to camp on private property with the owner’s permission but not for more than one night, prohibiting even your children from having a campout in the backyard for the whole weekend.

Though I only ever received a few citations, all other encounters I had with the police included the officer making sure I left the area. Sometimes they were polite, sometimes they were rude, but always they added, “It’s against the law.” As if I didn’t know. As if I could do something about it. The hardships and insecurity of homelessness couldn’t dampen my spirit as much as the humiliation that my city hated me. They must have hated me, since I was denied shelter and yet forbidden to live without shelter.

Though the purpose of this ordinance used to say something about public nuisances--referring to homeless people--it was thankfully changed, instead citing sidewalk obstructions and to “protect the health, safety, and public welfare of the community.” This never assumes that a homeless person might be a part of the community, that homeless and non-homeless, alike, might be best protected with more public restrooms and places where homeless people can set up a tent, at the very least. I doubt my city’s sincerity, since they would not allow advocates to provide porta-potties for homeless campers, saying it would “encourage homelessness.”

 I contend that the true purpose of the camping and other similar ordinances are to make it easier for communities to exclude whom they want to exclude, since you will never see  the ban against storage of property enforced upon a shopper who sets their packages down on the sidewalk while they wait for a taxi.

These measures to exclude homeless people have spread from city to city. Some communities have passed ordinances against sitting or lying down in business districts. There are a growing number of cities making laws against sharing food without a permit, often with high permit fees. Laws against panhandling crop up, occasionally overturned because of our constitutional right to free speech, but often upheld due to place and time restrictions. Police engage in more unconstitutional mischief by confiscating and destroying homeless people’s property without due process.

We look back on our history as a country and are not proud of the laws we have had that excluded whole groups of people, such as Jim Crow laws that ensured segregation of black people after the Civil War, or the Anti-Okie laws that prohibited poor people from entering California during the depression era. Now we have what is almost proudly called “Qualify of Life” laws. These laws fall under the “Broken Windows” philosophy that states when broken windows are left unrepaired, crime and poverty migrate to the area, degrading property values. These laws target mostly homeless people, as if they can be compared to broken windows.  Homeless people are criminalized because of their “unsightliness,” obstructing business districts from appearing freer of poverty than they actually are.

It is only understandable that the average resident or civic leader would desire that homeless people were not visible in their communities, and they are exasperated by not knowing of any immediate solutions. But this very visibility is evidence that criminalizing homeless people does nothing towards a solution. In fact, the opposite is true. A person that gets cited for what I like to call “an act of living crime” ends up with a criminal record from the citation and possibly an arrest record resulting from failure to pay the fine, thereby lessening their chances to qualify for housing or employment. Homeless people are forced to move from one location only to reappear in an equally illegal and unwelcomed location. When they are forced to leave, the homeless person is not always allowed the time to pack all their belongings, including paperwork that could help them get off the streets.

Many people are unsympathetic because they may think homeless people are drug addicts or lazy, or that they chose to be homeless. However, if they all chose to be homeless there wouldn’t be long lines and lists of people waiting to get into shelters and housing programs. Even if a homeless person admits they choose to be homeless, do they actually prefer living this rough life, or did they just lose hope? I will admit you may find some unsavory and maybe even dangerous people living on the streets. But, you may also find some unsavory and dangerous people living in mansions and apartments, yet we wouldn’t consider making it illegal to live in apartments.

Efforts to protect the civil rights of homeless people have been mostly reactionary, involving lawsuits and defending individual clients in court. In 2009, Attorneys Mark Merin and Cathleen Williams of the Law Office of Mark E. Merin filed a class action lawsuit Lehr v Sacramento City and County, which recently resulted in homeless people being reimbursed for their property that was destroyed by law enforcement. The lawsuit originally sought to overturn the anti-camping ordinance, but the judge excluded that portion of the lawsuit early on in the trial. The U.S. Constitution has strong protections for personal property, but doesn’t seem to do so well about protecting a person’s right to exist.

Though criminalization measures are rarely overturned, there are a few cities that are allowing homeless people to live legally in campgrounds. Nevada City, California is experimenting on issuing camping permits to homeless residents. Rhode Island recently passed a Homeless Bill of Rights which includes equal rights protections for homeless people and has inspired other states to start their own statewide laws. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano introduced the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, AB5, into the California legislature in December 2012, which includes protecting homeless people’s right  to sleep, lie down without blocking sidewalks, and many other provisions to override laws against people’s basic ability to live and sustain their lives. AB5 also includes protection against discrimination based on homeless status when seeking governmental services.  

One role model in the work to protect people’s rights is Sister of Mercy Sr. Libby Fernandez, the Executive Director of Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a four acre multi-services complex that provides survival assistance to an average of 650 homeless guests daily.  She has also been a part of most local efforts to decriminalize homelessness, if she hasn’t initiated them herself. She has joined the fight for a Safe Ground for homeless people, camped alongside other homeless people in defiance of the camping ordinance and threat of arrest, and used her position as a prominent community member to defend homeless rights at meetings and speaking engagements.

Another Catholic Sacramentan doing this work is Ron Blubaugh, a retired administrative judge. He assisted with the Lehr lawsuit and volunteers a few days a week at the Tommy Clinkenbeard Legal Clinic as an attorney assisting homeless people with their citations and court appearances.

Catholic individuals, parishes, and organizations are well known to take on projects that benefit homeless people, mostly by serving meals and providing shelter. This work should continue, of course, but we should not ignore the immediate harm that is inflicted upon our homeless neighbors by not allowing them the legal right to survive while they wait for shelter and housing to become available.

We need to treat those we find living outdoors as people, not as broken windows. If we don’t want people sleeping in front of businesses, we should provide places where they can sleep and have access to sanitation, water, and garbage service--at the very least. We need dialogue, including with homeless people.

I remained homeless for seven years until I qualified for a Section 8 housing subsidy and was able to rent an apartment.  What got me off the streets were not laws forbidding me to be there, but an opportunity to get back into housing. When we finally decriminalize homelessness, we can then get down to the real work of ending homelessness, wholeheartedly.