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California cities must stop criminalizing homelessness


Several members of the Los Angeles City Council recently announced their support of a proposed law that would make it illegal for homeless people to set up camps near the city’s new temporary “bridge” shelters — shelters that were specifically designed to service areas with dense populations of unsheltered people.

The Oakland City Council has effectively banned homelessness, limiting the public spaces in which residents can sleep to possibly less than 10% of city streets, punishing more than 3,000 people who simply have nowhere else to go.

Last month, the Milpitas City Council voted unanimously to sue in order to prevent a former motel purchased under the state’s Project Roomkey program from becoming a permanent supportive housing development.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the state’s homelessness crisis was out of control, and the gap between what working California renters earned and the cost of renting safe and secure housing was outrageous. In fact, this is a national issue. There is not a single U.S. county where a full-time minimum-wage worker can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that has left more than 400,000 Californians unemployed, eviction moratoriums that are soon to expire and the congressional stalemate over a stimulus package to protect American families, it is irresponsible, immoral and even illegal for our local governments to sweep away their unhoused residents.

In Martin vs. City of Boise, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco held that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment to enforce criminal laws against homeless people for living on the street if a city did not offer enough shelters.

Taken together, these local efforts across California amount to a statewide Homeless Exclusion Act that treats homeless residents as refuse instead of human beings.

Criminalizing people for being on the streets does not house a single individual. It forces our unhoused neighbors to move away from the services they need. It is traumatizing. It exacerbates their destitution. And it does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness.

The public is sick of seeing Band-Aids put over gaping holes and sweeping away the everyday visual images of our failed policies in addressing equity and affordable housing.

And this isn’t speculation.

Build Affordable Faster California, which organizes and advocates for affordable and supportive housing in the Golden State, conducted a poll of Oakland voters this September.

Some 92% of Oakland voters agreed that it was important for the city government to respond to the crisis directly — in other words, voters are sick of lawmakers simply moving people around without shelter alternatives.

Our poll also found that Oakland voters do not support a strict ban on encampments as a solution to homelessness.

In fact, 66% of the Oakland voters are against strict enforcement of camping prohibitions that push homeless people around, like the ordinance the City Council just approved, instead of helping them access housing. And an overwhelming 80% of respondents agreed that Oakland should open up more shelters.

Meanwhile, in another recent poll, three-quarters of Los Angelenos said they would support a “right-to-shelter” law similar to the policy that’s used in New York.

And in San Francisco, 69% of those polled supported putting a homeless navigation center in their own neighborhood and 72% supported opening one in every city district.

There’s no question that Californians are ashamed that — in one of the wealthiest states in the nation — more than 150,000 people are sleeping on the streets tonight. But hiding our policy failures is not the solution voters want.

Mayors and lawmakers can expand the state’s eviction moratorium, grow the affordable-housing stock, and eliminate policies that criminalize people who are unhoused because they simply can’t afford a decent and safe place to sleep.

San Francisco has the right idea. New legislation proposed by Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Sandra Lee Fewer would expand and grow our two pilot supervised sleeping villages and require a network of Safe Sleeping Sites for all unhoused neighbors. These sites would provide basic services, social support and a place for peeople to put their belongings when they bed down for the night.

Ultimately our priority must remain decent, safe, affordable, permanent housing for every resident in our state and nation.

We can face this crisis with care, compassion and our shared capabilities.

The people have made their support for their unhoused neighbors clear. Now it’s time for lawmakers to follow our lead.

Jane Kim is civil rights attorney and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.


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