DE WERK: Homeless rights bill is extremely poor policy

May 9, 2013 

The California Legislature is advancing a bill called the "Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act."

From a purely humanitarian point of view, this effort is noble, but at the same time, it is ill-conceived and poorly timed. The original proposed language written by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano gave homeless people the right to urinate in public places. That by itself should be cause for alarm, and fortunately, bill revisions have since eliminated that intended right.

As stated in a recent letter to Ammiano from the California Police Chiefs Association, "We certainly agree that all persons in California are free and equal, but the unintended consequence of AB 5 will be to erode that concept …"

We should all treat our fellow Americans with respect and compassion, but AB 5 is not the solution to the growing problem of homelessness, neither for mainstream society nor the homeless.

The association goes on, "Under AB 5, it appears that homeless persons would have a right to use public places for public bodily elimination, the collection and storage of goods, including alcohol and possibly drugs, as well as panhandle. The impact of all of these activities is to effectively enact homeless eminent domain where public places are taken and appropriated for homeless use. In other words, AB 5 will remove the public's ability to access and use public places."

Of course, the public would not be truly banned from using public places, but the idea is that those places would become so problematic as to dissuade most people from wanting to go there.

The number of homeless people is growing statewide, owing, in part, to the massive release of convicts from state prison and the poor condition of our mental health care system. Homeless people as a whole are not necessarily criminally inclined, but many of them are convicted felons and even more have severe alcohol and drug addictions.

AB 5 comes at a time when this state has seen significant losses of law enforcement positions as a result of a poor economy and budget cuts; local jails are full and the prosecutorial system is overburdened. It also appears to have implications for local government ordinances that are aimed at maintaining public cleanliness and safety. Some of these include bans on Dumpster diving and rummaging through household garbage cans, aggressive panhandling, overnight camping in parks and on public streets.

Giving the homeless these extraordinary "rights," should they come about, cannot take place without other citizens giving up their rights at the same time.

You have the right to travel about without being pressured by aggressive beggars. You have the right to enjoy public places that are not being redefined for purposes that were never intended, like parks that would take the form of campgrounds that lack the necessary facilities to support around-the-clock human habitation.

Keep in mind that many users of public places, parks in particular, are children. It seems obvious that children should not be exposed to the very things that Ammiano believes should be allowed in public places.

I agree that discrimination is unacceptable and the plight the homeless needs to be addressed. As Ronald Davis, a homeless Chicago man, states in a video that has gone viral, "I'm not a bum, I'm a human being."

Instead of passing bills that treat the symptoms of a bigger problem, the state should allocate more resources to address the underlying issues that exist as a common thread within the homeless subculture: unemployment, addiction and mental illness. Local communities should be enabled by policy makers to provide adequate resources to truly help the homeless return to being healthy, productive members of our society.

Instead, the state appears to be employing a strategy that is counterproductive, enabling this vulnerable community to fall into deeper states of homelessness at the expense of taxpayers in the name of human rights. This is unacceptable and extremely poor public policy.

De Werk is Ceres' city manager and police chief.




AT A GLANCE

Assembly Bill 5, by Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco

Status: Passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee on a 7-3 vote, and referred to the Appropriations Committee. Not yet voted on by the full Assembly.

Learn more: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov

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