Whose right?

Backlash over bill to protect homeless

Eric Grealish back in May, sitting near Second and Main streets in downtown Chico.

Eric Grealish back in May, sitting near Second and Main streets in downtown Chico.

CN&R file PHOTO by Tom Gascoyne

They are an undeniable presence in downtown Chico, sleeping in storefronts early in the morning, occupying city benches later in the day or hanging out in front of coffee houses and downtown eateries. The homeless, transients and street people seem to have a growing presence, and there are calls for local government to do something about them.

But what about their rights?

That’s a question being raised by the proposed Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-Dan Francisco).

Backers of this bill say that its central purpose is to affirm homeless Californians as citizens protected by basic human rights. But certain language in the bill’s first draft left detractors thinking long and hard about where and how the homeless can drop trou.

Critics include members of The Sacramento Bee editorial board, who—in a recent opinion piece titled “Ammiano bill on homeless is an embarrassment”—painted a colorful picture of what could be in store if the bill becomes law. The Bee envisioned a fictional homeless man, Tom A. (get it?), living outside a local coffee shop, panhandling and urinating on the sidewalk.

“He’s a turn-off for customers,” the opinion read, “but the proprietor is powerless to interfere with Tom” under the proposed law.

Law enforcement also wouldn’t be able to stop these hypothetical out-of-control homeless Californians. In fact, detractors say, Ammiano’s bill as written would basically allow homeless residents to do as they please—from peeing to panhandling—anytime, anywhere.

Ammiano says this is, of course, not the bill’s intent.

“The thrust of the bill is recognition that homeless people have the same rights and need the same things as other people,” Ammiano said. “You cannot criminalize people for not being housed.”

Ammiano said that there is no intention and no language in the bill that says bad behavior should be tolerated or condoned.

Indeed, most of the proposed legislation is fairly uncontroversial. But there is one paragraph in particular that editorial boards across the state have found particularly disturbing. This excerpt would protect the homeless community in carrying out certain “life-sustaining activities” outdoors without harassment from law enforcement, including “eating, congregating, possessing and storing personal property, urinating, or collecting and possessing goods for recycling, even if those goods contain alcoholic residue.”

Critics of the bill believe that, as written, this paragraph could allow for unfortunate loopholes in state and local laws. But the bill is new, and proposed legislation can undergo multiple edits.

After a call to Ammiano’s office, for instance, the paragraph in question has since been removed.

Local civil-rights attorney Mark Merin still believes that at least a portion of the bill’s provisions will pass.

“I think that there are very important aspects to the bill that will resonate with the legislators,” he said.

This includes provisions such as adding the term “housing status” to the list of protected conditions under the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, or making it legal for someone without a bed for the night to sleep in his or her vehicle.

“It’s not that you’re entitled to urinate in public; it’s that there should be bathrooms for the public to use,” explained Merin. “It comes down to human needs.”