Jan. 15 2013 12:07 AM

We agree with the sentiment behind new legislation, but not the details

Photo by David Rolland

Last week, we published a story that detailed state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano's latest attempt to get the TRUST Act through the Legislature and signed by the governor. It would mostly bar local law-enforcement officers from helping federal officers enforce immigration laws. You might recognize the San Francisco Democrat's name from his campaign four years ago to legalize and tax marijuana. In addition to the TRUST Act, he's also introduced a bill that would enact a Homeless Bill of Rights.

A lawmaker who wants to legalize pot and protect homeless people and undocumented immigrants? To our eyes, he sounds like a hefty slice of fried gold. Ammiano for president in 2016!

But, actually, as much as we appreciate Ammiano's crusade for social change, the Homeless Bill of Rights is not the way to go.

The legislation stems from a group called the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of West Coast social-justice groups, and its organizing director, Paul Boden, a formerly homeless person who became an advocate 30 years ago. It's a response to what WRAP sees as worsening discrimination and harassment against people who are forced by circumstances to live on the street. 

We agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind the bill. During the past 40 years, events have conspired to dramatically increase the homeless population in California and beyond—namely, the deinstitutionalization of severely mentally ill people, the upward concentration of wealth and the gradual loss of public and single-room occupancy housing. In response, communities, often through business-improvement districts, have used the police to roust people from sidewalks in commercial centers, parks and other public places. County jails have become an expensive (for taxpayers) part of the routine for many people with no place to live. Generally, there's no place for people to store their belongings—hence, the proliferation of shopping carts—and precious few proper places where they can go to the bathroom, let alone sleep. Meanwhile, as they've been hemmed into blighted parts of cities, they're increasingly victimized by violence. So, we get it. 

The legislation is long and detailed, and we can get behind some of the provisions, such as allowing folks to sleep in cars that are legally parked. But the core of the bill essentially allows people to engage in survival activities—sleeping, resting, lingering, eating, asking passersby for money, urinating, etc.—on any public property, without fear of being harassed or cited. We'd have trouble with that provision, but it doesn't matter, because it's a poison pill that would surely kill the bill or fail to survive an amendment process. The state's major daily newspapers—Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee—have editorialized against it.

We understand the desire to protect homeless people from discrimination and harassment up and down the state with one swift swipe, but we think a better approach is community by community, perhaps through the courts, as was done in San Diego in 2007 when a judge approved a settlement that barred police from citing people for "illegal lodging" on public property between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. if there are no shelter beds available, and in 2011, when a judge approved a settlement that compelled the city to establish a facility where people can stash their stuff. 

Yet there are policies that can be pursued at the state level to provide additional funding for supportive housing for folks with mental illness and addiction, as well as more treatment facilities; affordable housing for the lowest-income citizens; public restrooms, storage facilities and day centers with amenities like showers and Internet access; and, as a last resort, emergency shelters.

Honestly, it pains us to oppose any measure aimed at making life easier for people who have no sanctuary, no warm bed at night, no place to perform the most basic biological functions. But the Homeless Bill of Rights is destined to languish in the purgatory of a legislative committee or be watered down to the point that it's mostly symbolic. We favor more targeted efforts to chip away at the problem.

Still, we thank Boden, Ammiano and countless others like them for giving a damn.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com