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Why Do California Governors Keep Vetoing Homeless Hate Crime Bills?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Hate Crimes

You would think that in a progressive state like California there wouldn’t be three different Governors (two Republicans and one Democrat) who have vetoed homeless hate crimes legislation.  But such is the case.  Disproving that the third try is a charm, on August 5, 2011 Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed AB 312.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), AB 312 would have granted homeless people the right to invoke hate crimes protection when suing an assailant in civil court.   Current categories include:  race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, political opinion and position in a labor dispute.

It was supported by state trial lawyers, veterans’ organizations, county sheriffs and the state’s rank and file police officers.

In an interview with EverythingLongBeach.com, Assemblywoman Lowenthal said, “Homeless people have enough problems without becoming the targets of violence.  This bill is the state’s way of saying those kinds of attacks are especially reprehensible.”

In his veto message, Gov. Brown said, “This bill would expand the provisions of the Ralph Civil Rights Act to include homelessness or the perception that one is homeless, thereby creating new private and enforcement remedies.  It is undeniable that homeless people are vulnerable to victimization, but California already has very strong civil and criminal laws that provide sufficient protection.”

But according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, “California for years has consistently ranked first or second in bias homicides against the homeless. Moreover, they are often attacked serially with increasing severity. Yet, current legislation completely excludes the homeless as a group from even the basic civil remedies extended to many other groups to stave off these horrible attacks. For anyone to say that the status quo is acceptable strains credulity.”

He should redirect his letter to the family of Kelly Thomas, 37, a schizophrenic homeless man in Fullerton, who died after a July 5th, 2011 interaction with police.  The brutal beating of Thomas has sparked an international outcry along with rallies, officer’s suspensions, calls for the resignation of the police chief, and pending investigations by local and federal authorities.

Last year Brown’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill -AB 2706- also introduced  by Assemblywoman Lowenthal.

In his veto letter dated September 29, 2010 to Members of the California Assembly, Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote:  “While this bill is well-intentioned, it is unclear whether the homeless are targeted for violence because they are homeless, or because they possess a characteristic already protected by California’s hate crime statute, such as mental or physical disability.   Furthermore, poverty, unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification.  Because of the incongruence between the recognized classifications listed in the Civil Code section 51.7 and homelessness, this bill could result in legal challenges and increased court costs.”

The former Governor must have forgotten the October 9, 2009 incident in which John Robert McGraham, 55, a homeless man, was drenched in gasoline and set on fire on the side of the road in Los Angeles.  He died.  According to a police officer, the perpetrator, John Martin, had a “straight-up personal dislike and little bit of crazy” toward homeless people.

In both legislative sessions the bills passed overwhelmingly, but along partisan lines.  Democrats generally in favor; Republicans opposed.

Other homeless hate crimes legislation has been stalled, getting tied up into California’s prison overcrowding issue.  In 1994, then Republican Governor Pete Wilson vetoed an even stronger bill that would have simply added homelessness to the state’s existing hate crimes law.

However, there is clearly a need for anti-hate legislation in California.  Since 1999, the National Coalition for the Homeless has issued an annual report on hate crimes and violence against the homeless population.

Between 1999 to 2009, there were a total of 213 hate crimes/violent incidents against the homeless occurring in 48 California cities.   Forty-eight resulted in death.  California had the most incidents of any state during this eleven year period.  Florida came in second with 177 attacks.

Preliminary numbers from NCH’s annual (2010) report on hate crimes/violence against the homeless population has California taking second place only to Florida.   But California still ranks number one for the twelve year period from 1999 to 2010.

But even with three strikes against homeless hate crimes bills, we’re not out yet. Looking forward, the fight in California is far from over. Lowenthal hopes that as states around the country pass similar laws, such as Florida, people will see more the importance of hate crimes legislation that protects people experiencing homelessness. She also expresses her continued resolve, stating, “This legislation has now been vetoed by two successive governors. That is disappointing and frustrating, but I’ve been working on homelessness issues for a long time and making progress is never easy.”

By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing, National Coalition for the Homeless.

The 10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws – Part II

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Civil Rights, Criminalization, Food Sharing, Tent Cities

The National Coalition for the Homeless would like to offer a preview of our upcoming report on the criminalization of homelessness by choosing the top ten most ridiculous anti-homeless policies enacted in cities across America. Our criminalization report will offer narratives for many more cities and occurrences than the ones listed here, as well as rank the nation’s ten “meanest” cities. This post counts down our choices for the 5 most ridiculous anti-homeless laws/actions. An earlier article ranking policies 10 through 6 is available.

10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws
~From 2010 through June 2011~

 5. Panhandling Bans – Multiple Cities

A rapidly increasing number of cities are designating areas where it is illegal to ask for any item of value. In Miami FL, for instance, panhandling is not allowed around American Airlines Arena and other tourist-heavy areas. Dallas TX also banned panhandling in popular tourist destinations in preparation for hosting the Super Bowl. Some cities, like St. Petersburg FL, even issued bans that cover the entire city.

Despite laws already being in place to guard against “aggressive” panhandling and asking for help clearly being a first amendment right, the courts have had mixed conclusions on these ordinances. An appellate court in New York said that such bans are unconstitutional, while panhandling bans for certain areas, such as around ATM’s and banks, were upheld in Minneapolis MN.

Oakland Park FL decided to take their roadway panhandling ban a step further: not only is it illegal to ask for anything of value, it is also illegal to give. In the name of traffic safety, anyone caught giving to or purchasing something from anybody on the road can face either a fine of $50 to $100 or up to 90 days in jail.

4. Camping Bans – Multiple Cities

Some cities, including Anchorage AK and Kansas City MO, have passed “anti-camping” ordinances and are destroying homeless camps both within metropolitan areas, such as those under bridges and in abandoned lots, and deep within parks and forests. Many municipalities interpret “camping” to mean setting up structures such as tents, while others will issue citations for simply using a sleeping bag because it provides shelter from the elements. For example, Salt Lake City UT has produced horror stories of people receiving camping citations for sitting on their backpack in a park.

Police “sweeps” of homeless camps, which are intended to clear out residents and their makeshift shelters, have resulted in the loss of very important property, such as medication, birth certificates, ID, and personal mementos. Due to legal challenges nationwide, like one in Portland OR and another in Sacramento CA, many cities that perform these sweeps have instituted systems to provide warning time to campers and to retain their seized belongings for a fixed period of time. Without this process, numerous homeless victims have illegally lost what little property they had, and even with it many more still stand to lose their belongings due to the difficulty of retrieving it. Ultimately, these crackdowns on homeless camps only waste taxpayer money and cause unnecessary hardship in order to move the problem of homelessness instead of solve it by providing adequate access to housing and services.

3. Sit/Lie Ban – San Francisco, California

“Stand up for the right to sit down!” This is the rally cry of those who are protesting a San Francisco ordinance that makes it illegal to sit or lie down on the city’s sidewalks between 7 am and 11 pm. The city claims that the ordinance is intended to limit panhandling and to reduce San Francisco’s homeless population by discouraging homeless people from living there. Opponents say that it is unconstitutional to force somebody to walk and stand all day simply because they have nowhere to go. Similar ordinances exist in cities across the country, including Austin TX, Seattle WA, and Reno NV to name a few.

2. Food Sharing Limits – Orlando, Florida

Since when is it illegal to give somebody food? In Orlando FL, it has been since April 2011, when a group of activists lost a court battle against the city to overturn its 2006 laws that restrict sharing food with groups of more than 25 people. The ordinance requires those who do these “large” charitable food sharings in parks within two miles of City Hall to obtain a permit and limits each group to two permits per park for a year. Food sharing is considered to be a form of speech, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance still provides ample areas for groups to practice their first amendment rights because they can still share food elsewhere in the city.

The law was not enforced during the legal battle, but after the lawsuit against the city failed, Orlando began cracking down on those who chose to defy the ordinance, resulting in multiple arrests of activists from Food Not Bombs. “‘They basically carted them off to jail for feeding hungry people,’ said [Douglas Coleman from Orlando Food Not Bombs]. ‘For them to regulate a time and place for free speech and to share food, that is unacceptable.’”

Food sharing prohibitions are far from a new development and are not only found in Orlando. In 2010, NCH and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a report on the growing popularity of these ordinances.

1. Sleeping Bans – Multiple Cities

Many city ordinances that ban public sleeping, like one in Santa Cruz CA, refer to all sleeping in public as “camping,” but the act of camping is interpreted in this article to be the use of personal shelter, such as a tent, and those laws are addressed in #4 of this list. Number one on our countdown is focused on ordinances that strictly ban all public sleeping outright, which includes cities such as Santa Cruz that make sleeping outside illegal in a de facto manner via a “camping” ordinance’s broad interpretation and enforcement.

No other type of law can quite compare to these bans when it comes to the overt criminalization of homelessness: it is undeniable that people experiencing homelessness are the only segment of the population commonly affected by ordinances that do not allow sleeping outside. To exacerbate the problem, many places with these laws, like Ashland OR, simply do not have enough shelter and services to offer violators.

Thankfully, courts have usually required cities with these ordinances to have enough shelter space available for every offender, as was the case in San Diego CA. But this policy ignores that shelters, which usually have curfews, tough crowds, and crammed beds, are not necessarily the most desirable places to live, so many people would much rather stay on the street than in what are sometimes “jail-like” places. And all too often the homeless have no choice: in St. Petersburg FL, those caught sleeping on the sidewalk are told that they can either go to a shelter or a real jail, denying them the option of avoiding systematic and strict harboring altogether. In the end, these policies can severely hurt people experiencing homelessness, resulting in jail time, outstanding fines, and a restriction of their freedoms.

For more information on the criminalization of homelessness, you can visit our 2009 Homes Not Handcuffs Report and our 2010 report on Food Sharing Prohibitions.

By Daniel Honeycutt, NCH Intern

The 10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Civil Rights, Criminalization

The National Coalition for the Homeless would like to offer a preview of our upcoming report on the criminalization of homelessness by choosing the top ten most ridiculous anti-homeless policies enacted in cities across America. Our criminalization report will offer narratives for many more cities and occurrences than the ones listed here, as well as rank the nation’s ten “meanest” cities. This post counts down our choices for the ten most ridiculous anti-homeless laws/actions.

These five anti-homeless policies are only the tip of the iceberg. Check back in with the Bringing America Home Blog next week for five even more ridiculous laws and actions that not only ignore human rights, but constitutional ones as well.

10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws
~From 2010 through June 2011~

10.  “Homeless Meters” – Multiple Cities

San Antonio TX, Virginia Beach VA, Anchorage AK, and many more cities across America are installing converted parking meters to collect donations for homeless service organizations. These meters are being marketed as a possible solution to panhandling by encouraging do-gooders to give their spare change to established groups instead of directly to the homeless to avoid the possibility of their money being spent on drugs and alcohol.

Donating to vetted homeless service organizations is a positive thing, so we at NCH want the placing of “homeless meter” programs on this list to not necessarily mean that we are against the use of parking meters to collect donations. But we also urge the public to be aware of the negative effects of these efforts.

Personal interaction, which these meters may eliminate, can be just as important to a person experiencing homelessness as an actual monetary donation. A short talk can go lengths and bounds to renewing a feeling of inclusion in society, a feeling that is all too often lost among the sometimes invisible homeless. Donations to service organizations are always encouraged, but we should never let these meters discourage acknowledging that those who ask for money are fellow human beings. Just as ignoring the issue of homelessness will not help end it, ignoring the people directly affected by homelessness will not help them help themselves.

9.  RV Sleeping Ban – Venice, California

In 2010, Venice CA began strict enforcement of an ordinance banning sleeping in RV’s. This action is reportedly due to resident claims of annoyance from noise and inconvenience from the bulky vehicles. But many homeless live in RV’s, and they need to be close to the city so they can access services. Not allowing them to park and sleep in the city makes getting help all the more difficult. The ordinance was enacted due to reports of some RV owners dumping their sewage in public, but this ban punishes Venice’s homeless who have to choose between living either in their RV or on the streets. This homeless population is assuredly much larger than a couple of bad apples who do not care where their waste ends up.

8.  Smoking Ban – Sarasota, Florida

A ban on smoking in some public areas in Sarasota FL may sound fine at first: after all, New York City recently banned smoking in public parks. But the real issue here lies within the City Commission’s intentions, not the validity of the effects of second-hand smoke or cigarette butt pollution. The ban was originally proposed in conjunction with park bench removal at Selby Five Points Park (#6) to discourage the homeless from using the public area. The ban was later expanded to all public parks out of fairness, but this ordinance still remains far from fair: a city-owned golf course was given an exemption because, according to City Manager Bob Bartolotta, “so many of the golfers are smokers.” What is so special about golfers that they should not be required to follow the laws that are in place across the rest of Sarasota’s public parks?

7.  Water Sprinklers – Manteca, California

“Creative” is one way to think of this method of keeping the homeless from sleeping in public parks in Manteca, CA. “Cruel and unusual” is another. In order to discourage the homeless from camping in Library Park, the city purposely changed the water sprinkler schedule so that people could not sleep in the park without an unwanted shower. The policy also includes shutting off power in the park’s gazebo to keep the homeless from using it to charge their cell phones.

6.  Bench Removal – Sarasota, Florida

In response to complaints about gatherings of “vagrants” in public parks from downtown Sarasota FL condo residents, the city decided to remove the presumed host of these gatherings: benches. Sarasota went forward with its plan to remove the benches in Selby Five Points Park in May 2011 in order to please those who pay “the highest property tax value in the county” by discouraging the homeless (and apparently everyone else) from using the park. Combined with a panhandling ban around parking meters and a smoking ban in certain public spaces, which the City Commission originally proposed to further discourage the homeless from using parks (#8), it is all too clear that the Sarasota Commissioners are willing to go to ridiculous lengths to keep their poorest citizens out of the sight of their wealthiest.

For more information on the criminalization of homelessness, you can visit our 2009 Homes Not Handcuffs Report and our 2010 report on Food Sharing Prohibitions.  Be sure to check back next week for the top 5 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws!

By Daniel Honeycutt, NCH Intern

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