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January 5, 2013

Editorial: Ammiano bill on homeless is an embarrassment

Imagine that a mentally ill homeless man has taken up residence in front of Joe's Coffee Shop in downtown Sacramento. His grocery cart, filled with all his possessions, sits beside him.

The homeless man – let's call him Tom A., a fitting moniker for purposes of this editorial – sleeps, eats, solicits money from passers-by, urinates on and generally occupies the sidewalk, just inches from the front door of Joe's Coffee Shop. He's a turn-off for customers, but the proprietor is powerless to interfere with Tom. The cops are barred from forcing him to vacate the sidewalk or arresting him.

If the "Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act," a measure introduced by San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, were ever enacted into law, the nightmare scenario described above would become reality. As introduced, the bill would give homeless people the right to commandeer sidewalks, parks, beaches, subway tunnels, bus stops or plazas – virtually any and all public spaces in California.

Ammiano says that is not his intent, that his bill "is far from being fully formed" that he "is not interested in usurping local authority," or "permitting bad behaviors." Rather he wants the state to develop "uniform policies" on how to deal with homeless people.

Whether the assemblyman is serious about this measure or is simply seeking a more robust debate about homelessness, his bill has failed on both counts. As introduced in its extreme form, it has become a silly distraction, easy to parody, not a vehicle for a serious discussion about homelessness. And such a discussion is sorely needed.

Ammiano is right that too many cities and counties simply engage in a shell game with the homeless, rousting them from one area and then rousting them from another. But to end that shell game, cities and counties need resources. They need more funding for affordable housing, including nontraditional housing like campgrounds or "Safe Ground" sites for those who are resistant to homeless shelters or who have no legal place to be when local shelters run out of space. They need more mental health and drug treatment programs. They need more authority to intervene and help mentally ill people make rational decisions about their basic needs.

What communities don't need are homeless people with more rights than they already have to engage in anarchy. And, make no mistake about it, that is what Ammiano's "Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act," as introduced, allows.

The assemblyman insists that amendments are being drafted to the bill. But by attaching his name to even a draft that is so extreme, Ammiano has trivialized the issue and hurt the legitimate needs of the homeless people he purports to care about.

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