Despite Compelling Testimony,  SB608 Doesn’t Get Out of Committee

By Jess Clarke

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ctivists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and across the state of California trekked to Sacramento on April 7, 2015 to lobby for the “Right to Rest. They are part of the growing movement aimed at ending the criminalization of homeless people and stopping police profiling and harassment of all people in public places.
In a show of growing political strength from a sector of the population usually ignored by mainstream politicians, California’s homeless won the right to a hearing in the capital following a successful three-state lobbying campaign this spring.
The coalition came to demand passage of the “The Right to Rest Act” California bill SB608, introduced by State Senator Carol Liu (ID-District).
On a rare rainy day, dozens of supporters filled the Transportation and Housing Committee hearing room to voice their support for an end to laws that make it illegal for homeless individuals to exist in public space.
Dressed in a blue St. Mary’s sweatshirt with a matching baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, Angel McClain kicked off the testimony with a telling recitation of the daily life of a black woman without a home.
“The police would harass me because they could…I was treated like dirt with no consideration, like a piece of garbage that you would discard. Irrelevant and unimportant. They had no sense of compassion.”
But she and the many other advocates in the room are up against the men and women in business suits, who also turned out to defend their interests.
The Chamber of Commerce and some groups representing city governments (notably the League of Cities)  lobbied heavily against the Right to Rest. They gave no policy response to the grim reality of homeless people caught in a revolving door of citations, jail time and police encounters that push them ever farther away from a chance of employment and housing. Instead they gave nominal support to the idea of building more affordable housing as a way of addressing the problem.
Not a one of them addressed the core fact that homeless and poor people are daily being denied their basic civil rights. Neither did they provide any sort of likely path for a homeless person to get access to this hypothetical affordable housing to come—nor did they respond to McClain’s telling description of the way the revolving jail door policy so often ends:

“Finally, a real opportunity opened up for me at a brand new senior facility. My rent would have been 30% of my income. At the interview the housing representative showed me two items on my credit report.  He said, we can’t give you housing because of your police report…”
Supporters of the Right to Rest in the hearing room agreed that more affordable housing is the solution to being without housing—but advocates also know that immediate action needs to be taken to protect the civil rights of the poor and those without housing now.
Several Senators  expressed support for the measure, but Senator Liu didn’t see enough votes to move the bill out of committee. SB608 will be considered as “two year bill” meaning that it will come back for consideration in the next legislative session. Meanwhile,  the coalition is looking toward doing some outreach and advocacy on the upcoming  “Hunger Action Day,”  May 13, 2015.  It’s an annual event when the Capitol will be flooded by groups working on poverty rights legislation on a range of issues from CalFresh food assistance and CalWorks application process.
Advocates are continuing to pursue at least one of the measures included in the Right to Rest—and that’s the right to sleep in a legally parked vehicle And of course as the coalition members have for decades, they are advocating for more money to be spent on housing.  (These bills include AB 718 (Chu), which aims to stop the enforcement of laws that make it illegal for people to sleep in legally parked vehicles, as well as a package of bills introduced by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, which, amongst other things, aim to increase the California Low Income Housing Tax Credit by $300 million.)
While the Right to Rest didn’t make it out of committee this time, supporters are now planning on a season of education and base building to move the broader agenda for civil rights—in the legislature, and on the streets.
To get monthly updates on the campaign, and other vital issues of social justice readers can sign up to have the Street Spirit Newsletter delivered to their email inbox by joining the mailing list.