By Cathleen Williams

The California State Capitol glittered like a wedding cake in the April morning sunlight as homeless activists and supporters gathered on the marble steps. Many had traveled from across the state, and they came from Sacramento too. All were here to voice their support for the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB5), the bill which was scheduled to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on this historic day, April 24, 2013.

Homeless activists from Portland, Oregon, and “Sisters of the Road,” in their bright green t-shirts, joined Californians that morning and vowed to pass a parallel bill in their state, following Rhode Island and New Jersey in enacting basic protections for homeless people – equal rights, not special rights, to protect our valuable brethren of the streets.

The Homeless Bill of Rights contains crucial provisions that protect people who are living outside from discrimination and abuse; some of the important provisions

  • The Bill of Rights provides that every homeless person shall have the right to move freely, rest, solicit donations, pray, meditate, practice religion, and to eat, share, accept or give food and water in public places without being subject to criminal or civil penalties or police harassment;
  • It provides that every homeless people shall have the right to occupy a legally parked vehicle to rest, sleep, or use for purposes of shelter without criminal or civil penalties or police harassment;
  • It provides that local laws may be enforced against resting only if certain
  • AmmianoWitnesses.JPG
    Elisa Della-Piana, Jessica Bartholow, General Dogon, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, Wendy Hill, Paul Boden. PHOTO: Simon Vu
    supporters.JPG“human service” conditions are met, that is, if the locality is not an area of concentrated unemployment; if the locality has public housing with a waiting list of no more than 50 persons, and if general assistance (GA) is available for a certain period;
  • It provides that every homeless person has the right to engage in lawful self employment, such as recycling.
  • It provides that localities must provide sufficient health and hygiene centers available 24/7 for use by homeless people – hot water, soap, and lavatories available to all.

The journey to the State Capitol has been long and arduous for the drafters and advocates of the Homeless Bill of Rights, which is now on record as being supported by almost 100 organizations across the state, as well as hundreds of individuals.

After filing into the Capitol hearing room, filling row upon row of seats, homeless activists and supporters lined up along the wall and around the room to speak in the microphone about their support of the Bill. Two speakers, Paul Boden of Western Region Advocacy Center (WRAP) and General Dogon of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) spoke from the podium at the front of the room as key witnesses.

Speaking in a strong, passionate voice, Paul Boden pointed out that mass homelessness is a result of poverty – and the cost of housing. In 1983, the federal budget for public housing shrank from $83 billion to $18 billion (in 2004 constant dollars) – throwing millions of people out in the street nationwide. Like the “Okie laws” and “sundowner laws” in California during the Great Depression, localities have passed restrictions on the very presence of homeless people in their towns, claiming that displacement and removal is the solution to homelessness. Counties spend $300 million annually to arrest and cite, and even incarcerate homeless people, and $17 million to prosecute non-traffic related tickets against them. This is wrong, irrational, and a waste, and heaps additional hardship on people already struggling with bare survival.

In his crisp presentation at the microphone, General Dogon described living on Skid Row in Los Angeles where poor people are heavily targeted. He has spoken to more than 600 homeless people in the past year – more than half reported that they were arrested or cited for sleeping in the past year – including Ann Moody, disabled and alone, who has been cited/arrested more than 100 times for sleeping under L.A.’s local ordinance. As General Dogon stressed, the Homeless Bill of Rights is just common sense, ensuring that such basic needs as hot water and soap is available for use, as well as protecting the most basic human need of all, along with food (and love and companionship) – sleep. “Until we have housing,” he said, fixing his intense eyes on the men and women legislators in suits who surrounded him, towering above on their raised circular benches, “help protect our human dignity.”
A great shout rang to the ceiling as the votes were tallied – the Homeless Bill of Rights passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee by seven votes – more than enough.

As people climbed into their cars and vans to return home after the victory, they agreed that a long road stretches ahead before the Homeless Bill of Rights is enacted into law. There are additional hurdles in the California Assembly, where the Bill is scheduled to be heard in the Appropriations Committee on May 1. Most likely it will be “suspended” for a year before the final vote, a year that will be spent organizing and doing outreach to make the Bill of Rights a reality.

Is the Homeless Bill of Rights (AB5) necessary?
When homeless activists came to town to testify before the California Assembly Judiciary Committee, Homeward Newspaper asked them why they thought AB 5 was necessary. Here is what they said:

“The Homeless Bill of Rights and Fairness Act is a response to the growing criminalization of poverty occurring in cities across the nation. It is not about special rights: it is about equal rights.” Eric Ares, age 29, Community Organizer for L.A. Community Action Network

“It is simple to me. People are people and homeless people are vulnerable to discrimination and to being treated inhumanely.” Mike Hennes, age 30, living in a single room occupancy apartment in San Francisco and struggling to pay each month’s rent.

“Homeless people deserve a quality of life. It’s absurd that they spend days in jail for resting, sleeping, etc. and then get fined – money we don’t have.” Sean Gregory, age 24, homeless; jailed for “not being up” in the morning and cited for sitting down.

AB 5 is a bill to ensure equal rights regardless of housing status. Houselessness can happen to anyone, regardless of who they are. I will be staying active by helping out with Oregon’s version of the Bill of Rights.” Amber, age 33, homeless domestic violence survivor with three children.

“AB 5 is part of fighting for the rights of the homeless so they have access to safe places to sit, lay their heads, and relax without being harassed. It is important because homeless or not, we all have the right to be comfortable in the place where we are. I am planning to stay active around this issue until it is resolved and everyone
knows that homeless people are human too.” Bekah, age 36, homeless off and on since age 13.

“We are all human beings all are to be treated equal, yes, now and well into the future. Teach, teach, teach.” Art Rios, Sr., “The One and Only SpongeBob.”

“AB 5 is crucial because of the ongoing criminalization and brutalization of homeless people in all our communities. It’s important if we want to live in a just and equitable society that we treat everyone fairly, respect human rights, and acknowledge the societal failings that have led to mass homelessness.” Becky Dennison, housed resident.

“AB 5 is decades overdue.” General Dogon, homeless in the past, ex-offender turned community organizer for L.A. Community Action Network

“The human indignity of homelessness impacts over hundreds of thousands of Californians and their communities, but it doesn’t have to. AB 5 will protect people living on the street from citations and imprisonment which will only worsen their condition and opportunities to escape homelessness, and invites us all to seek real, lasting and humane responses to homelessness.” The Homeless Bill of Rights, Questions and Answers Sheet