by Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]embers and allies of the Western Regional Advocacy Project celebrated a big first victory on April 23 when the California “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act” (Assembly Bill 5), authored by Tom Ammiano, passed through the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a 7-2 vote. AB 5 protects people’s right to use public spaces. It calls for the creation of Hygiene Centers, protection of homeless youth, and access to counsel during civil prosecution for being homeless.
A Homeless Bill of Rights is particularly significant today. Our federal government has abandoned any pretense of its responsibility to “ensure safe, decent and affordable” housing for the poorest people in our country as it committed to do in 1937 when what is now HUD was formed [see the Housing Act of 1937].
After years of funding cuts, neglect and the demolition of public housing, the 1998 Congress went so far as to say “the federal government cannot be held accountable to ensure housing for even a majority of its citizens” [see the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, 1998]. While Congress may have ignored its legislative mandate from 1937, it has with great conviction adhered to the 1998 (lack of) responsibility.
Year after year, we learn of yet another series of funding cuts, of Section 8 units being converted to market rate, of additional public housing units being demolished with no intention of ever replacing them, and of even more tightening of eligibility criteria so as to exclude people from even being able to apply for housing assistance.
Add this to the loss of factory jobs through corporate tax credits for relocation overseas, the ever-shrinking time limits on welfare assistance, foreclosures, the rising cost of healthcare and the increasing disparity between rich and poor, and it is no wonder that homelessness has stayed with us for the past 30 years. In fact, it would be a miracle if it hadn’t.
Since 1983, local governments have been expected to manage this evolving crisis with only miniscule amounts of federal funding for emergency shelters, social workers, and a very small number of transitional housing units. And for the past 15 years, those local communities have been rebelling. Rather than fight the Feds, however, they are putting their energies into attacking poor and homeless people.
The Feds deprive the state and local governments, the state deprives the county and city governments, and in a sure sign of exasperation after years of abuse and neglect, all of them turn around and attack the poor and homeless people who are trying to live out their lives in spite of having no roof over their head.
We have been here before as a country, during the Depression. It is a darker side of ourselves we prefer to keep hidden in the crevices where our fears reside. We wish it weren’t true or are ashamed of what we are doing, so we pretend it’s not really happening. “Anti-Okie laws would never happen today” or “Sun Down Towns are a relic of our past” we tell ourselves, and maybe even think it might be true. But, deep down, we know it’s not.
With sleeping, sitting, and standing having again become criminal offenses, California has officially revived an ugly part of its history. We are again using our “criminal justice” systems, coupled with the power of our governmental institutions and media networks, in order to demonize, dehumanize, and ultimately criminalize the people who represent to us a reality we don’t want to see or face.
The answer is not to call the cops, and not to strictly enforce sitting-on-the-sidewalk laws, loitering laws, being-in-the-parks laws, sleeping-in-a-vehicle laws, anti-food-distribution laws, and, of course, the tried and true panhandling laws. The answer is not to try to convince ourselves that if they can’t sit, sleep, stand still, or ask for alms — then maybe, they will leave. Or if they don’t leave, we always have that brand new jail we were able to get federal funding to help us build.
This is why we need a Homeless Bill of Rights.
If the federal government doesn’t care about “these” people, if it refuses to restore funding for affordable housing, if it continues to evade its responsibilities, it does not mean local governments and communities need to do the same.
Our local governments and our local communities need to work with each other, not fight with each other over whether life-sustaining acts such as sleeping, resting, or eating, are or are not crimes. We need to generate the focus and attention on what matters.
We need to speak to our federal government with one voice. We need to say that when millions of people are sleeping in our streets and shelters every year, and when more than 1 million children who go to public schools every day don’t have a home to go to that night, it is a national crisis that demands a federal response.
When we are so clearly able to document the cause and effect of federal housing assistance cuts in the early 1980s with the advent of mass contemporary homelessness across the country, it is a national crisis that demands a federal response.
California’s Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB 5) demands that the State of California differentiate between criminal acts that a person might commit (regardless of housing status) and life-sustaining acts we all perform but become criminal offenses when those without housing commit them.
Rhode Island has already passed a Homeless Bill of Rights and Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut and Missouri are joining California in calling for one. These bills reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the current tools and strategies available to localities to address the growing economic disparities that inevitably result in human rights abuses.
AB 5 is a bill that says to local governments that, regardless of whether or not you are frustrated and angry that the federal government has abandoned your needs, it is not ok for you to take that anger out on people who are less powerful than you. The bullied child need not become the teenage bully.
If we truly embrace its principles, a Homeless Bill of Rights can unite us all and get us working together for a government that affirms that a healthy, housed and educated people is a righteous responsibility for governments to undertake.