Quality of Life: The legislature may guarantee it of the poor too
January 7, 2013
OPINION By STEW JENKINS
The inalienable right to life and liberty. So simply stated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, would be guaranteed to desperately impoverished Californians by proposed amendments to multiple statutes if the “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act”, Assembly Bill 5, is adopted.
Who would have thought in California that a statute would be needed to open public places, public parking lots, sidewalks, parks and streets to permit people to move, use, and innocently rest without being subjected to local criminal ordinances and police harassment?
Who would have thought that Cities would make it a crime to give or share food in a public place with a poor person, and that a State Statute would be necessary to protect your right to feed a needy neighbor. But in the second decade of the 21st Century, that is exactly what Cities like San Luis Obispo have triggered Assembly member Tom Ammiano propose. His Assembly Bill 5 would supersede local ordinances like those adopted by San Luis Obispo, and many other California Cities, that target the poor forced to shelter under bridges and in their vehicles.
To illustrate the need, Ammiano’s bill starts by setting out findings on the tragic history of local California communities using “ugly laws” (1867), “anti-Okie laws” (1937), “sundown laws” (abolished in 1968), “vagrancy laws” (revise in 1961, and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983), and now “quality of life” and “civil sidewalk” ordinances used to force homeless people to flee local jurisdictions and impose de facto segregation against poor people. These local ordinances, Ammiano says, “tend to condemn large groups of inhabitants to dwell in segregated districts or under depressed living conditions that result in crowded, unsanitary, substandard, and unhealthful accommodations [which] result in criminalization of homeless persons who choose not to migrate [out of the towns seeking to exclude them].”
Simple things are proposed in the Act to keep local governments from targeting poor people, guaranteeing the right to use public restrooms and public showers at all times, the right to occupy, rest and use a vehicle that is legally parked, the right of the individual to decide whether or not to enter a public or private shelters, and the right to vote and to enroll children in public schools.
Ammiano’s proposed AB 5 clarifies that no homeless person may be denied equal access to benefits administered or funded by any agency that receives financial assistance from the state. And finally, his Bill proposes state funding of community compliance, and of community construction/acquisition of housing to raise the “quality of life” of the poorest among us.
Assembly Bill 5 may benefit from some minor amendments in committee, but it is a comprehensive way to return California to being a leader in human rights for all. Ammiano deserves support to get AB 5 passed, and signed by the Governor.
Stew Jenkins is a San Luis Obispo based attorney known for his civil rights cases.