By John Howard, Editor of the Capitol Weekly.
It began as a seemingly benign attempt to protect California’s daily homeless population of 160,000 but it has turned into a significant political dispute, with local governments across the state saying the plan would hamstring their authority and make a bad situation far worse.

At issue is a difficult balancing act between empathy for the homeless on one hand and fears of law enforcement, local governments and business interests on the other.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s proposed Homeless Bill of Rights would allow homeless people to rest, eat and sleep in public places without being harassed. It would let them stay in a car, pickup or RV, as long as the vehicle is legally parked, and it would protect anyone who offers helps to the homeless – including public employees on public property – from retribution or legal sanctions.

Among many other provisions, it protects self-employment rights for the homeless, allows them to decline admittance to a public shelter without being hassled and requires cities and counties to maintain health centers for the homeless.

California has about a fifth of the nation’s homeless population clustered in the principal population centers but also scattered among the state’s 400-plus cities and 58 counties.

Ammiano’s AB 5 came in response to what he and his allies – led by a number of social-service and legal advocacy groups — said were an increasing number of local “anti-nuisance” ordinances “targeting mostly people without homes. These laws, commonly called ‘quality-of-life’ or ‘anti-nuisance’ ordinances, criminalize sleeping, sitting, and even food-sharing in public places. Just like the discriminatory laws of the past, they deny people their right to exist in local communities,” according to the bill.

The measure also was prompted by law enforcement ‘sweeps’ of homeless encampments criminalize those without shelter, Ammiano, D-San Francisco, has said.

The Bill of Rights would establish  a law “protecting people without homes from violations of their basic human rights and the people who serve them from in penalties,” and seeks to divert “investment from criminalization to stabilization efforts,” noted supporters in an Assembly analysis.

More than six dozen groups, led by the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Western Regional Advocacy Project, support AB 5. Other backers include the City of Richmond – the only city listed in support – and the ACLU, the California Nurses Association and the San Diego Hunger Coalition, among many others.

But while most people sympathize with the homeless, critics of Ammiano’s bill say it would establish a protected class of citizens and handcuff local authorities’ ability to main healthy and safe surroundings. The cities, police and law enforcement groups – including the California Police Chiefs Association – and an array of business coalitions are leading the opposition. The costs alone, they say, are not defensible during a time of strapped municipal budgets.

“We don’t want to have a problem with people being able to sleep in public places and urinate in public places and basically affect the quality of life in our community,” said Brenda Weatherly of the Hollister Downtown Association. The Ammiano plan is “trying to allow undesirable activities to be the norm,” she added.

Others agreed.

“We understand that people should be free and equal, but this would foster (negative) behavior in our downtowns and diminish the quality of life,” said Laura Cole-Rowe of Suisun City, the executive director of the California chapter of Main Street Alliance. “A lot of cities have downtowns with public parks and plazas and public spaces, and there are a lot of problems to provide a safe and clean place to enjoy the activities that the downtown associations are putting on. There is a lot of concern about safety and health in public places.”

“The solution is not to make homeless people a ‘protected class’ but rather to provide humane services and housing to the homeless population,” she wrote the Legislature in her official opposition to the measure.

In effect, AB 5 offers a group of people a form of civil-rights protection — something that supporters say is long overdue. But by doing that, it cuts into the locals’ ability to manage their own communities.

Ammiano, in a lengthy interview recently with Capitol Weekly, said his proposal would not diminish others’ rights, and contends that the cost argument is not persuasive.

“I pay taxes, too. I, and the people who voted overwhelmingly to re-elect me, don’t believe that giving equal rights to one group of human beings takes rights away from anyone else. I stand for equality. What this bill seeks is fair application of laws, including to a group that has not been treated fairly: the homeless,” he said.

“For some reason, we don’t hear this (cost) outcry when the state budget is being balanced on the backs of those who are most in need, cutting the safety net that keeps some people from homelessness and making it that much more difficult for those who are already homeless.”

Opposition to the Homeless Bill of Rights isn’t limited to municipal governments.

One opponent is the Desert Water Agency, which serves roughly 80,000 people in Palm Springs, Cathedral City and nearby areas. Forcing public agencies to maintain round-the-clock access to their grounds “is just not feasible,” said General Manager David Luker.

“It’s just not a good idea,” he said. “We have found homeless individuals encamped at our front door, sometimes hiding in the weeds. So far, we have been able to call the local police and ask for help. We’ve had homeless encampments at our water facilities and we just can’t have that.  This bill would eliminate that ability (to call police).”

“It was unanimous among our board members,” Luker added. “This is something that was not thought out very well.”

Ed’s Note: Corrects 10th graf by removing reference to California District Attorneys Association, which has not taken a position on the bill. Note, this story also appeared in CaliforniaCityNews and is available here.