Opinion: Housing—Not Tickets and Jail Time

The mood was tense at the Orange County Civic Center Plaza, a vast expanse of concrete many of the county’s unsheltered homeless population call home. The county had just issued a memo homeless people could see as meaning just one thing: a police crackdown was on the way. They would face more frequent arrests and citations under existing ordinances for resting, sleeping or camping in public.

County officials are fully aware that many homeless people have no way to comply with such laws because those same officials have failed abysmally to provide adequate shelter and appropriate housing. The hypocrisy of the looming crackdown is evident since it comes only a few months after the county acquiesced to the city of Santa Ana’s temporary moratorium opposing a proposed emergency shelter.

The memo to county employees talked about potential threats to public safety stemming from the “increased transient population” around the civic center. Even though the county admitted that “documented cases of threats to personal safety are limited,” the memo proposed “stronger working relations with law enforcement” to combat the problem.

Unfortunately, unsheltered homeless people in Santa Ana and elsewhere in Orange County face an all too common predicament as so-called “quality of life” laws spread from city to city in what can only be called an absurd and cruel race to the bottom. A UC Berkeley Law School study on anti-homeless laws in California found that all 58 cities they surveyed had at least one local law allowing authorities to ticket or arrest people for standing, sitting, or resting in public. All but one city also had banned sleeping, camping, or lodging in public places.

Since people with no access to shelter or housing have no alternative to being on public property, these ordinances serve only to push homeless individuals into neighboring communities. These laws perpetuate homelessness by making it even more difficult to secure and maintain housing, employment, and benefits.

Those cited while sleeping or resting in public may be sentenced to jail time, hit with fines they cannot afford to pay and wind up with criminal records. Not only does such enforcement raise serious civil and human rights concerns, it can be significantly more costly than providing adequate shelter and housing. A study of 13 cities and states found they spend an average of $87 a day to jail someone, while they spend only about $28 a day to provide someone with shelter.

Recognizing the punitive and counterproductive nature of such enforcement, California State Senator Carol Liu (D-Glendale) has introduced the Right to Rest Act of 2015 (SB 608). Her bill would protect every Californian’s right to rest and would limit the criminalization of homeless people. The League of California Cities opposes the bill, saying it would “create a special set of exemptions, privileges and rights for the homeless to occupy public and private property without complying with laws that apply to all others in society.”

Homeless people are not given any special rights or privileges in this bill. In many communities across the state, they have no place where they can legally engage in necessary human behaviors such as sleeping or resting. SB 608 prohibits punishment for sleeping and resting. Changes introduced in this bill apply only to public spaces—not private property as the League alleges. Existing state law can still be used to prevent lodging on private property without the owner’s consent.

Senator Liu’s bill would also enable local governments to redirect funds currently used to enforce anti-homeless ordinances towards desperately needed housing and shelter. Such funds would be especially beneficial in Orange County, which has no year-round emergency shelter and insufficient affordable housing. The county’s waitlist has been closed for Housing Choice Vouchers, known as Section 8, the federal government’s main rental subsidy program for low income people. Demand for permanent housing with supportive services, which studies suggest best meets the needs of chronically homeless people with disabilities, also far exceeds supply.

Counties do not have to wait to change their approach to homelessness. They have the capacity to act now. All that is lacking is the will. They can actually get people off the streets and give them a place to rest by creating more affordable, permanent housing. No amount of loitering or vagrancy tickets or orders to “move along” even comes close as a solution.

Garrow is a homelessness policy analyst and advocate with the ACLU of Southern California. Johnson is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.