California Vagrancy Laws Violate Human Rights

“Anti-homeless laws today and the vagrancy laws of prior eras — restrictions like anti-Okie laws, the Sundown Towns and Ugly Laws that explicitly discriminated against migrants, people of color and people with physical disabilities — have come back with a vengeance.”

by Janny Castillo

“We can’t arrest our way out of homelessness.” — Eric Ares, Los Angeles Community Action Network

What would make 13 elders from St. Mary’s Center, ages 55 to 90, and a Presentation Sister pile into cars at 8:00 a.m. in the morning and drive 80 miles to foggy Sacramento? Their fierce commitment to urge California legislators to support the Right to Rest Act of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP).

On February 19, St. Mary’s Center Senior Advocates for Hope and Justice joined other advocates, some from as far away as Los Angeles, to share their personal stories of the consequences of being cited and arrested for sitting, lying and sleeping. They described how cities use “broken windows” policing to target homeless people and criminalize their innocent, life-sustaining activities.

Due to decades of national and state cuts to affordable housing, chronic homelessness has plagued California cities. Common sense would demand that affordable housing is the solution to homelessness, rather than criminalizing the very people we want to help.

From the capitol steps, St. Mary’s Senior Advocate Angel McClain told how getting arrested for being homeless prevented her from securing permanent housing. “When I was out there (homeless), we walked the streets all day and all night. We had nowhere where we could sit in peace and rest. If you sit down, the police would harass you and you would have to move.

“I was arrested several times just because I was homeless. I had been putting in applications for a place to live, and unfortunately from my arrest record and not having money or anywhere to live, it showed up on my credit report. I had an interview for an apartment, and do you want to know why I was denied? I was denied because I owe court costs for being arrested for no apparent reason.”

The press conference was held to release a new report from the UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic, “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State.” UC Berkeley Law Professor Jeffrey Selbin, director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic, described how the report carefully gathered impartial evidence about laws that affect homeless people.

“Last year, WRAP asked us to research the increasing criminalization of homeless people in California,” Selbin said. “The voices of advocates and the voices of homeless people are often ignored or dismissed and WRAP wanted evidence-based research to confirm or refute their experience on the ground…. We did not presume that the advocate’s story was the accurate one…. We really looked for hard evidence and data.”

The report examined today’s anti-homeless laws and found many similarities to the discriminatory ordinances of past decades when laws were used to enforce racial discrimination and exclude disabled people and migrants.

“The first thing that stood out to us,” he said, “is that anti-homeless laws today and the vagrancy laws of prior eras — restrictions like anti-Okie laws, the Sundown Towns and Ugly Laws that explicitly discriminated against migrants, people of color and people with physical disabilities — have come back and they’ve come back with a vengeance. They are designed to keep people out, to push people out.”

Selbin explained that in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court declared these laws unconstitutional. The Supreme Court declared that the old vagrancy laws encouraged arbitrary arrests and criminalized innocent activities and placed unfettered discretion at the hands of the police. “These laws have come back and are used primarily to target homeless people,” he said.

WRAP Executive Director Paul Boden supported the report’s findings with a historical perspective. “The federal government eliminated the equivalent of 54 billion dollars a year in affordable housing funding from 1979 to 1982,” he said, “which resulted in opening our emergency shelter programs in 1983. Then we are talking about a violation of people’s human rights. The response to that level of homelessness was the criminalization of people that are living without housing!”

Right to Rest advocate Russell Bartholow passionately described how he survived 15 long years on the streets with the added trauma and hardship caused by police harassment and repeated incarcerations. “I was arrested continuously for selling flowers by the side of the road,” he said.

Bartholow said he tried many times to apply for public benefits but could not get to his appointments because he was constantly being detained or arrested. “I was arrested for vending, soliciting, soliciting within 500 feet of the freeway, sleeping…. I’ve been arrested hundreds of times. In 15 years, that adds up.”

Beside the freeway where he lived, Bartholow had grown a garden to help feed himself and his friends. “They came in and poisoned it with herbicide, destroyed it,” he said. “We would eat it, scrape it clean, which gave me cancer from the herbicide.” Deathly ill, he was put in the hospital where he saw a homeless rights article with his niece’s name on it: Jessica Bartholow. With his niece’s help, Russell Bartholow is now receiving benefits, and has been housed for 18 months without one incident of incarceration.

Russell’s niece, Jessica Bartholow, is a legislative advocate for California’s Western Center on Law and Poverty and has worked for nearly 15 years to overcome the harm that low-income Californians face due to a shredded safety net. During one of the legislative visits that the advocates attended, Jessica shared that what Russell needed was real help, not incarceration. She was able to help him get his benefits in three months.

But the repercussions of the criminalization continue for Bartholow. Over the years, he has accumulated an obscene amount of court fines. “You’re not going to believe the amount of fines, millions of dollars,” he said. “I went in front of the judge, and he said, ‘Alright, you need to just make payments.’ I told him if I could pay three-and-one-half million dollars in fines I wouldn’t be out there panhandling.”

At the State Capitol, the UC Policy Advocacy Clinic released a report on the rising criminalization of homeless people in California by the use of laws that mimic shameful vagrancy laws and discriminatory edicts of past eras. Janny Castillo photo

At the State Capitol, the UC Policy Advocacy Clinic released a report on the rising criminalization of homeless people in California by the use of laws that mimic shameful vagrancy laws and discriminatory edicts of past eras. Janny Castillo photo

 

Nathaniel Miller, co-author of the California Vagrancy Laws report and UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic law student said the report studied 58 cities in California that are home to three-quarters of the state’s homeless population.

“The 58 cities have enacted at least 500 anti-homeless laws,” Miller said. “All 58 cities ban at least one daytime activity like standing, sitting or resting in public.” Even compassion for the hungry has been criminalized in some cities. “Over 20 percent of the cities prohibit people from sharing food with homeless people,” Miller said.

Marina Fisher, report co-author and graduate student at Goldman School of Public Policy, spoke about enforcement trends. “What we found was that arrests for so-called vagrancy crimes tend to follow economic cycles,” Fisher said. “Specifically, they increase several years after the onset of a recession and in the wake of the great recession, vagrancy arrests continue to rise to the present day.”

Their research showed that vagrancy arrests have risen by nearly 80 percent since 2000, but arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct have declined somewhat.

“So what we see increasingly is a pattern of arresting and criminalizing people for their status, not for specific behavior like drunkenness or disorderly conduct,” Fisher said. “These laws perpetuate poverty, and enforcement is very expensive.”

Lindsay Walter, a UCB law student and report co-author, said that the report’s first recommendation is to seek a solution to the increased criminalization at the level of state government, with the Right to Rest Act being a first step.

The second recommendation is to improve data collection and reporting. “None of the cities that we researched tracked enforcement against homeless people specifically, and none record the housing status of those they are citing or arresting,” Walter said.

The third recommendation is for organizations to work together and pool resources. “Other law schools around the country are taking an interest in our report and are going to conduct similar research in their state,” Walter said. “And other states are taking a lead at the statewide level. Colorado and Oregon already have Right to Rest Bills that have been introduced. It is time for California to step up and join in leading this cause!”

“We can’t arrest our way out of homelessness,” said Eric Ares, a community organizer from the L.A. Community Action Network.

“The ultimate solution to ending homelessness is housing, but until we do that, we cannot continue this horrible cycle which is morally bankrupt and only perpetuates the cycle of homelessness. It makes it harder to find housing if you have citations, arrests, warrants.”

In his closing remarks at the press conference, Ares said, “We are asking for political leadership and political will.”

We need political will and People Power to pass the WRAP Right to Rest Act in California. We need to support and participate and donate to the movement to pass a California Right to Rest Act.

Download a free copy of the UC Policy Advocacy Clinic’s new report “California’s New Vagrancy Laws” at www.wraphome.org

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Right to Rest Act Introduced as SB 608 in the State Senate

In a breakthrough for the human rights of homeless people in California, State Senator Carol Liu (D – La Cañada Flintridge) introduced the Right to Rest Act (SB 608) to the State Senate on Feb. 27, 2015.

This legislation was developed by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) in order to end the alarming trend of cities passing laws that criminalize homeless people and violate their civil rights. SB 608, the Right to Rest Act, would protect the rights of homeless people to move freely, rest, eat, and perform religious observations in public space as well as protect their right to occupy a legally parked motor vehicle.

“It’s time to address poverty, mental health, and the plight of the homeless head-on as a social issue and not a criminal issue,” said Liu. “Citing homeless people for resting in a public space can lead to their rejection for jobs, education loans, and housing, further denying them a pathway out of poverty.”

 

Video courtesy of boonachepresents

February 19, 2015

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