What America’s Most Vulnerable Need: A Bill of Rights for the Homeless
Editor's Note: In the next 10 days AlterNet will be launching an in-depth special coverage series on a wide range of stories addressing the shameful levels of growing inequality, poverty and homelessness in our nation. This interview is a preview of the topics we will be addressing. Veteran reporter Evelyn Nieves, who has covered these issues for a range of publications, will be contributing to the series.
Homeless shelters began opening en masse three decades ago, but the crisis is only getting worse. In a survey of 25 cities from every region of the country, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found more than half are experiencing a spike in homelessness. A majority of the cities said families seeking shelter were turned away for lack of space and that they expect an increase in homeless families. Yet more and more cities are addressing homelessness not by creating housing, but by banning activities such as sitting, sleeping or lying down in public, effectively making being homeless illegal.
This year, advocates for the homeless are fighting back. Until new policies and programs address the causes of homelessness--a lack of affordable housing, lagging incomes that have not kept pace with rising housing costs and the severe cuts in housing assistance programs for the poor—the nation must stop treating our most downtrodden fellow humans like criminals.
Last June, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, banning discrimination against homeless Rhode Islanders and asserting their right to use public parks, transportation and buildings like anyone else. In California, a Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB 5) was introduced last month by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, Similar bills are expected to be introduced in several other states, including Massachusetts and Oregon.
Paul Boden, an advocate for poor and homeless people for 30 years, helped draft the California legislation as organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of homeless advocacy groups from several Western states. Boden will be criss-crossing the region and the country in the coming months, working with groups hoping to help draft homeless rights bills.
For Boden, who co-founded the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness 25 years ago, ordinances designed to drive homeless people from public spaces are akin to laws that once discriminated against African Americans, Japanese Americans and the disabled. At a time when even cities considered liberal and tolerant have laws curbing the activities of the unhoused, homeless rights bills are likely to face tough public opposition. TheCalifornia measure, for example, would grant legal protection to homeless people engaged “in life-sustaining activities on public property,” including sleeping, panhandling, urinating and “collecting and possessing good for recycling, even if those goods contain alcoholic residue.”
Editorial writers have sneered at the bill. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a non-starter ... an absurd reaction to restrictions on homeless conduct and tough-love ideas.” The Merced Sun-Star called it a “nightmare scenario.” But Boden says that by putting the laws that criminalize homeless people in a historical context and exposing how they do nothing to solve homelessness but much to demonize society’s most stigmatized members, the bills could turn the national discussion around. He spoke about the Homeless Bill of Rights strategy advocates are planning to use to force cities into moving the discussion away from homelessness as a public nuisance and toward solutions to homelessness.
Evelyn Nieves: Why a Homeless Bill of Rights?
Paul Boden: The Homeless Bill of Rights is an attempt on our part to validate in law that people regardless of their housing status have a right to exist in public space. More and more and more, we see private security, business improvement districts and policing programs with sit-lie or loitering or jaywalking or sleeping or park closures, where it really has come down to we don’t want you in this community.
In the outreach that we did to over 850 homeless people in 13 cities, by far, sleeping, loitering and sitting on the sidewalk are the major offenses homeless people say they are committing. I’m talking 82 percent of the people say they were harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping, 77 percent for loitering.
We did a bunch of research and looked back at a lot of old laws: the Jim Crow laws, the Ugly Laws. They used local ordinances, they used state misdemeanors to target a specific sub-segment of the community. There were sundown laws where you were literally told: “Don’t let the sun come down on you.” You could come in during the day and work as a laborer, but when the sun came down, so did you. We have historic images: "Hey, Jap, don’t let the sun come down on you." That was Northern California. Or, "Hey, nigger, don’t let the sun come down on you." That was Southern California. They were very direct and very specific.
The Ugly Laws were about disabled people in public spaces. The first city to pass the law was 1867 in San Francisco; the last city to take it off their books was in the 1970s in Chicago. And just what we see with the sit-lie laws, these laws spread from town to town. …
So this reactionary approach by local governments criminalizing the presence of a specific subset of a community has a long history in this country. It has different names but every 30 or 40 years we seem to go through this cycle.
Today, it’s homeless people; tomorrow it’s going to be someone else. And so our attempt now is to do the public education work, to show people that we have a history of doing this. Not only is our attempt to stop the criminalization of poor and homeless people today, but to create law that says never again are we going to let you create local laws that discriminate against a specific set of the community. No one could sit there and tell us, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.” Well, it has happened before, it’s happening now and it sure as hell is going to happen again unless we proactively do something to make sure that it doesn’t happen.
Nieves: About the California Bill of Rights: You acknowledge that the bill is likely to be amended several times over. But as it is written, it would prohibit bans on public urination and sleeping on stoops. That doesn’t seem likely to survive the amendment process, does it? People will say they don’t want people urinating in front of them or sleeping in front of their property. Or they don’t want someone panhandling in front of their business.
Boden: Then let’s deal with poverty, let’s deal with homelessness, let’s deal with whatever the issue is … but to say that I don’t want to see this person therefore I’m going to create laws that makes this person’s presence illegal.
Part of our bill calls for hygiene centers, to be connected to health centers that already exist. We don’t want people urinating or defecating on the streets. I would agree with that. We want to create healthy, housed, hygienic communities. We’re all for that.
So let’s open up alternatives, and then if the person chooses not to access the alternatives, then, well, dude, you’re on your own. But right now, if someone’s got to go to the bathroom, they’ve go to go to the bathroom. It’s not easy to find a public restroom, one that’s not “for customers only.” If we’re going to make it illegal for people to perform that life-sustaining activity, you can’t just say to them, “Hold it in.” That doesn’t work. If we’re going to make it illegal, it’s just humane to say, “Here’s an alternative.”
I’ve been to shower centers and they have long lists every day of people who wait for hours and hours to take a shower. It’s not that people don’t want to take a shower, it’s that there ain't nothing there for them. I was just in Portland and there was a four-hour wait for a shower program. So it’s not that people don’t want to be clean.... We create that alternative and voila! Just like we build housing and sure as hell people will fill it....
I’ll never forget HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) doing a two-year, $4 million study that found that families that had Section 8 vouchers where they could afford a place to live--98 percent were in that housing two years later. Duh! This is not rocket science.
We’re 27 years, 30 years, into our homeless programs -- that’s disgusting. That is absolutely disgusting ... because we know the cause and effects.
Nieves: Why do you believe there is still so much homelessness?
Boden: The massive $54 billion a year -- a year! -- in cuts in affordable housing programs; the 30,000 to 100,000 units a year of rural housing that are no longer being developed; the mortgaging off of our public housing stock; the demolition of our public housing stock; the 900,000 units of Section 8 housing that have disappeared. These are cause and effect. When you take funding away, when you take units off the market from people that are incredibly poor, you are going to create homelessness. It is as true as any recipe you could ever get from any cookbook. That’s the recipe for homelessness. That is cause and effect. This started in 1979 and the cuts really came in 1982, and the spring of 1983 is when we started building homeless shelters in this country. Cause and effect. It’s clear.
Nieves: Why isn’t the focus on building or creating affordable housing?
Boden: You’ll hear: "Oh we can’t afford it, we can’t afford an entitlement." But we’re allowing $120 billion a year in homeowner mortgage deductions. So we can afford it. We can make it equitable, we can make sure that we add housing as a right, and we choose not to do that.
Nieves: You co-created the Western Regional Advocacy Project -- WRAP -- seven years ago after leading the San Francisco Coalition for the Homeless for nearly 20 years. Why?
Boden:WRAP was an attempt by a bunch of local organizations on the West Coast--we were going to be one of several regional offices of a national endeavor to combat homelessness. The national endeavor didn’t play out, but the West Coast groups said to hell with it, we want to create a voice that speaks to our issues ... and that speaks to what we see is the simplicity and the directness of what the alternatives are.
If we can make it so that local governments lose the option of merely finding punitive and criminal programs in order to get rid of homeless people, we can begin working with them on solutions. But so long as we allow local governments to use the police to use outreach teams connected to punitive programs, to use business improvement districts that have “ambassadors” to remove homeless people, nothing will get done. Right now, how we’re approaching it in this country is to say if we can make it disappear, we’ve solved the problem. And we say this is inhumane, unconscionable.
This Homeless Bill of Rights will not eliminate homelessness, it will eliminate one arm--the policing, punitive aspect of dealing with the problem.
Rhode Island’s version of the Homeless Bill of Rights does not stop the criminalization. It has important pieces. But they did not go into the depth of eliminating the punitive laws in order to shepherd that bill through. We have the first version which is almost identical to ours, and as it got amended as it got watered down.
We’re now talking with 20 groups throughout Massachusetts to talk about doing a bill there. Oregon is already working with us. By the end, we’ll have something all the states can use. The bills will be different. Hopefully our messaging and our outreach will get tighter and tighter as we go from state to state.
Nieves: Do you find a lack of urgency about homelessness when you travel the country?
Boden: The assessment of homelessness on a broad scale is that it’s worse than it has ever been and the sense of urgency that this is a crisis is gone. It’s become a welfare problem. I don’t think that the sense or urgency is gone from the organizing side. WRAP is seven years old. We’ve got over 800 downloads of our organizing tool-kit, we’re educating statewide housing groups. I don’t see that the organizers have any less sense of urgency. But I think that for whatever reason there is a locked in assumption on the local government level that the days that government might actually expend money on solutions are gone. Government should want people to be educated and healthy and housed. Why wouldn’t government say we’re only as healthy as the weakest person in our community?
Every day the shelters are full. Every day 300 people got to the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center to get a bed. People start lining up at 2 in the morning. That’s how much people are trying to get some kind of assistance.
San Francisco’s homeless program started in 1982. Hey dude, it’s been 30 years! The idea that 30 years later all these homeless people don’t want to access these services that keep turning people away are just lame excuses. Everybody can point to somebody who doesn’t access services because they’d like to make it about the individual. But those who refuse are the exceptions.
We didn’t have a homeless program prior to 1982. What is different about us? I don’t believe our DNA is different…What is different is that housing, money and assistance for the poor have disappeared. Since 1995, 360,000 units of public housing have been lost. The Dept. of Education says we’ve topped a million homeless children in our nation’s schools. So many people are dying in the street. So many people are beating each other up over their conditions on the streets. They can keep trying to put this under a rock, but it’s imploding.
Evelyn Nieves is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.