Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act – AB5By Paula Lomazzi
The Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB5) was introduced by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano into California State Assembly on December 3, 2012. This historic event follows a first ever homeless bill of rights that was recently passed in Rhode Island. This is just the beginning of the work needed before this bill can actually become California State law, but there is great interest throughout the state in seeing this vision of rights for homeless people become an actuality.

Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee (SHOC) first formed in 1987 in response to the passing of a city anti-camping ordinance in Sacramento. SHOC helped to put an end to that ordinance through legal means, but the City merely enacted a new anti-camping ordinance to replace the old one. In a recent lawsuit against Sacramento, we were asking the courts to help eliminate the anti-camping ordinance but the judge threw that part of the case out, keeping only the claims against property destruction by police and rangers in the lawsuit. Advocacy, civil disobedience, and pleas to the City Council have failed to make Sacramento’s leaders recognize that homeless people have the right to exist.

SHOC joined the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) last year. WRAP membership is made up of
homeless advocacy organizations from major cities throughout the western region of the US. We began our participatory membership by joining in the civil rights survey project, collecting information about the experiences of homeless people living in Sacramento directly from people experiencing homelessness. Other WRAP members from other cities similarly have been taking these surveys and we find homeless people in all members’ cities are having similar experiences of civil rights abuses and discriminatory treatment.

In fact, we find that cities throughout the US are increasingly passing local legislations and policies aimed at ridding their business districts and neighborhoods of homeless people by pressuring them to leave the area.

Historically, this policy goes back to the “Ugly Laws” of the mid-19th century, which made it a crime to have a visible disability in public, continuing through the anti-Okie laws of the Great Depression, and more recently, what is called “Quality of Life” laws, which target mostly homeless people.

Businesses have insisted that homeless people in their districts give potential customers and investors the impression that their business is located in an area that is not thriving economically. So businesses (often through Business Improvement Districts) and pressured city leaders have decided that a solution would be to make laws against homeless people sitting, laying down or having their property within sight, thereby giving police a legal excuse to exclude or force homeless people from their districts or cities. This attempt to maintain an appearance of opulence never changes the fact that there is an unacceptably large population of people that are homeless – people that have been left out, and sometimes kicked out, of our economy – that inequity and poverty does exist.

California’s bill will reflect our state’s specific needs – needs that homeless people have reported at forums and focus groups hosted by WRAP members across the state. Some of the rights AB5 will address are protections from discrimination based on homeless status, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures of personal property, access to public spaces, rights to give or share food in public areas, the right to safety and law enforcement protections, the right to engage in life sustaining activities, privacy and confidentiality, and many other protections that are needed by homeless people and others that use public spaces and services. This will help guide local jurisdictions to find and implement real solutions to homelessness, such as housing, shelters, services and employment opportunities, which will be outlined as aspirations in the bill.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D, San Francisco) is the author of the California Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act AB5. The bill is co-sponsored by the Western Regional Advocacy Project, Western Center on Law and Poverty, JERICHO: A Voice for Justice, and the East Bay Community Law Center. For more information or to give endorsements, contact WRAP (www. wraphome.org), or WRAP’s Sacramento
contact, SHOC, at (916) 442-2156, shoc_1@yahoo.com.