A recent OC Register Editorial asserts that Assembly Bill 5,by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, the Homeless Persons Bill of Rights and Fairness Act is “misguided compassion towards the homeless.” To their horror, as the Register’s editorial writers see it, the Bill would grant the homeless new rights in California, including sleeping on sidewalks.
The authors of this misguided assault on compassion, assert that “as American citizens, homeless people already benefit from every right in the actual Bill of Rights. But this measure would, for instance, allow them to sleep on sidewalks, in parks and other public spaces and would require that city governments provide them with bathrooms and showers.”
Well it seems to me that the freedom to lay down and rest when one is tired is a basic human right even though it is not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights. If you were to, in daylight hours, lay down a blanket, or mat on a park lawn or bench to take a nap you would not be breaking any laws. Such a violation only occurs when you do so at night. The laws our cities, like Santa Ana, have enacted to discourage the homeless from hanging around, are specifically targeted to prevent homeless people from engaging in a basic right to sleep during the night, The mere act of using a blanket to keep themselves warm, or a mat to cushion against the hard ground, breaks the law.
If you are homeless, it is difficult to stay with all of your worldly possessions 24/7. You might think that the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment would provide protection.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”
But in practice, that is not the case. For example, the city of Costa Mesa recently enacted an ordinance designed specifically to streamline the seizure and disposal of personal belonging of homeless individuals deemed “abandoned.” Costa Mesa is, to its credit, trying to find a place for the homeless to store their belongings safely before fully implementing the ordinance. But that was deliberate choice; there is no law requiring the city to take such measures. Earlier this month, the Costa Mesa City Council approved plans to develop permanent housing for homeless city residents.Another positive and compassionate choice.
The Homeless Persons Bill of Rights does not prescribe new rights, it seeks to guarantee that society provide for the protection of the basic rights the homeless already should enjoy.
If, as a society, we do not wish to have people sleeping in parks and other public spaces after dark, then the least we can do is provide safe places where our citizens without homes can sleep. We must also accept, that if an individual wishes to not sleep in the shelter provided, that they should be free to make that choice, without fear of arrest or citation. This is a condition guaranteed y that whole “Freedom and Liberty” principle that the Register editorial writers are so fond of espousing.
If we don’t want the smell of urine in our public spaces, we should ensure that public restroom facilities are available for use in our public areas where we know there is a need.
The Register editorial quotes the San Francisco Chronicle on the legislation: “It would guarantee a taxpayer-funded attorney for homeless people who are given a citation for, say, loitering or panhandling. It does not protect them from arrests for public drunkenness.” Based upon the context it seems the writers object to this provision.
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Law enforcement officers in many cities will routinely cite homeless individuals for a variety of offenses that require appearance in court and the payment of a fine or face an arrest warrant. In most cases, the cost of the bail (fine) alone is beyond their ability to pay. That fact, coupled with the prospect of jail for the simple offense of “camping” (i.e.: sleeping on a mat, or covered with a blanket) or loitering, deters many from even responding to citations. And, even if they wanted to appear in court, without transportation that possibility is pretty much off the table.
The Homeless Persons Bill of Rights provides for legal counsel, at the expense of the county where the citation is issued, if the county chooses to initiate judicial proceedings authorizing arrest for failure to appear or to pay the bail amount listed on the notice to appear. And that the defendant be notified of this right before entering a plea, and any waiver of that right be explicit. The right to the assistance of counsel is technically guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, but is routinely ignored for such offenses.
Providing legal protections to ensure that basic human and civil rights are enjoyed by everyone in our society is not misguided compassion, it’s what civilized societies do. To the Register editorial writers so offended by the homeless sleeping in public spaces, or having legal counsel to fight for freedom from being jailed for sleeping, we ask a simple question. While it is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and not the Constitution; where would you have the homeless exercise their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (i.e.: survival); or more directly, if not in our public spaces, where would you have them sleep?