Homeless Coalition Challenges Criminalization of Life on the Street
By Paul Boden and Terry Messman
The Right to Rest Act of the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign aims to end discrimination and the criminalization of the right to rest, and eliminate the violations of basic human and civil rights for all people, regardless of their housing status.
Already, 120 organizations in five states—housing developers, day-labor organizations, service providers and community organizations—have endorsed the Right to Rest campaign and are working together to promote this reform.
The right to rest and the ability to sleep are absolutely essential for human beings. No person can be required to forego rest or sleep—and when one is without a home, resting or sleeping in public places is often the only option available.
To make matters infinitely worse, city officials are attempting to criminalize rest and outlaw sleep at the very moment when affordable housing shortages and homelessness are rising to record levels.
Several cities in California, Oregon and throughout the country have enacted initiatives banning or restricting the right to rest, sleep, sit on sidewalks, or even remain in public places. Coupled with related attempts to ban food-sharing and meal programs that serve the poor, and aggressive efforts to drive homeless people out of public spaces, these measures add up to a comprehensive assault on the ability of poor and homeless people to even survive.
These initiatives that infringe on the most basic human and civil rights are, in fact, a dangerous and destructive attack on the only thing that very poor people have to call their own—their humanity.
Large Rise in Homeless Students
A major indicator of the rise in homelessness was recently announced by the U.S. Department of Education, which reported on September 22, that the nation’s public schools have enrolled a record number of homeless children and youth.
A staggering 1,258,182 homeless students were enrolled in U.S. schools in the 2012-2013 school year. “The number of homeless children in public schools has increased by 85 percent since the beginning of the recession,” according to the First Focus Campaign for Children.
Yet these alarming statistics only tell one small part of the story. The numbers of homeless people dying on the street are also increasing, and so are the numbers of hate crimes and violent assaults carried out against people on the streets. Judges have gone on record stating that the large increase in the numbers of homeless people in the jails are due to the “quality of life laws” enacted by city governments.
The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) and its allies recently surveyed 1,298 homeless people and found that 81 percent of those surveyed reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping. Another 77 percent were arrested or harassed for sitting or lying down.
In response to these widespread human rights violations, our Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign stands on the shoulders of social justice campaigns of the past to alleviate poverty and homelessness while protecting homeless and poor people from unjust laws and ensuring all people’s right to exist in public spaces.
Dangerous Level of Intolerance
The growing climate of intolerance—fostered by political officials and business leaders—is creating a very dangerous world for poor and homeless people. We have seen this kind of intolerance before in some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history.
Time and time again, political leaders have passed laws that persecuted minorities— laws that segregated and discriminated, mean-spirited laws that kept select people out of public spaces.
In the segregated South, Jim Crow laws and “Sundown Towns” prohibited non-white people from being present at night. California’s “Anti-Okie” law, enacted in the 1930s, made it illegal to bring extremely poor people into the state. And, even though it seems unbelievable today, until the 1970s, several American cities had on the books “ugly laws” to prohibit people with disabilities from being seen in public.
We understand today that, far from protecting the public, these laws endangered the very basis of our democracy—equal rights for all. They threatened to destroy the very fabric of our society by transforming our fellow citizens into objects of hatred and intolerance.
Tragically, these laws based on prejudice and fear are not just sad relics of the past. Today, numerous laws infringe on poor people’s ability to exist in public space, to acquire housing, employment, and basic services, and to equal protection under the law.
With poverty and homelessness reaching record numbers and affordable housing vacancies at their lowest, our cities have begun enacting a wave of laws that target people without homes. These laws, commonly called “quality of life” or “anti-nuisance” ordinances, criminalize sleeping, sitting, food-sharing and even religious practice in public spaces. Just like the discriminatory laws from the past, they deny people their right to exist in their communities.
These laws are designed to reduce the visibility of homelessness. Instead, they result in the frequent harassment of people, those with homes and those without. For low-income people, they inspire a cycle of citations and arrests that drive poor people further into poverty, which makes them more likely to be or become homeless, not less.
In a very real sense, we are fighting for The Right to Exist. We must ensure that people are not demonized again in our nation. The Jim Crow laws and Sundown Town laws no longer exist because dedicated people organized their communities to stop these discriminatory laws. Now, we have the chance to work together today to make sure that these cruel acts of prejudice never happen to anyone else.
Today, homeless people are being targeted by attempts to literally banish their presence. But they weren’t the first targets of intolerance, and they won’t be the last. That realization makes it all the more crucial that we prevent political officials from ever again banishing or criminalizing any other unprotected minority, anywhere.
We can learn from the disability rights movement and the inspiring Freedom Movement that overcame Jim Crow laws. The groups that fought segregation were not afraid to go up against popular opinion, and to resist the political officials who literally flooded the media with propaganda directed against minorities.
At times, the cost of conscience was high. Both black and white people who joined the struggle for freedom were often hated, vilified, beaten by police, and jailed. Yet, religious leaders and community activists, Freedom Riders and fearless marchers, all took a brave stand against the politics of prejudice and hatred, and found the courage to resist the power structure.
Can we do anything less today?
It has never been easy for people to stand up against the powers of the state and the weight of public opinion. But we celebrate today the people in our nation’s history who found the courage to march for justice—and won. They were able to overcome, and so can we today.
WRAP Survey Shows Full Extent of Repression
To ban rest for one of our most vulnerable communities is not only inhumane, robbing people of basic freedoms and civil rights, it is costly, wasting resources that should be used to secure housing, instead of on a revolving-door of misdemeanor citations and criminal prosecutions.
WRAP member agencies have sought to document the human impact of these laws by surveying people about their experiences with the police, business improvement districts and private security guards seeking to enforce them.
The findings of interviews with nearly 1,300 people have found that:
• 81 percent of respondents reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping.
• 77 percent of respondents reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sitting or lying on the sidewalk.
• 66 percent of respondents reported being harassed, cited or arrested for loitering or hanging out.
• Only 26 percent of respondents said they knew of a safe place to sleep at night.
We can only expect these types of violations of human rights and dignity to get worse as inequality increases, affordable housing shortages go unaddressed and more local ordinances are enacted without any protection from state laws.
The “Right to Rest” Act
All people should be permitted to occupy and utilize public spaces, regardless of their housing status. Furthermore, some civil and human rights that are amply protected for people who have a home, have not been defined and applied in a way to equally protect people who do not have a home.
The Right to Rest Act of the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign aims to redress this by protecting the essential right to rest of all people, regardless of their housing status. It further aims to prohibit discrimination, harassment or fear of arrest of those who have no place to rest except in a public space.
Specifically it will establish that all people have the right to:
• Use, and move freely in, public spaces, without discrimination and without a time-limit that discriminates based on housing status.
• Rest in public spaces and protect oneself from the elements, in a non-obstructive manner.
• Eat, share, accept, or give food in any public space in which having food is not prohibited.
• Pray, meditate, worship, or practice religion in public spaces, without discrimination.
• Occupy a motor vehicle for any purpose, provided that the vehicle is legally parked on public property or parked on private property with permission.
For more information about the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign or the Right to Rest Bill, contact: Western Regional Advocacy Project, (415) 621-2533, [email protected] Paul Boden is the executive and organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of 10 homeless advocacy organizations on the West Coast who work to eliminate the human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Terry Messman is the editor of Street Spirit newspaper which publishes “Justice News and Homeless Blues in the San Francisco Bay Area.”