Jailing the homeless perpetuates problem

“It’s hard to get sleep in this town. I mean you can go two days without eating alright, but going without sleep is much worse.” — 43-year-old disabled woman living under the Bay Bridge

Human beings have to sleep — we physically cannot endure without it. Sleep deprivation puts people at risk for a host of heart problems, stroke and diabetes, not to mention impaired cognitive functioning.

Sleep deprivation is even a common torture technique. This woman’s experience is quite common, as anywhere she goes, she will face the prospect of breaking a law, getting woken and cited by police or private security. She likely will not be able to pay the ticket, and it will go to warrant and destroy her credit. This will prevent her from getting housing and she can be jailed for it.

Here in San Francisco, we have almost two dozen laws on our books to use against homeless people. However, we are not so unique, according to a recent study coming out of UC Berkeley law. The 58 cities in California have passed a combined 500 anti-homeless codes restricting standing, sleeping, camping, resting, panhandling or sharing food. While the Supreme Court overturned anti-vagrancy laws in the early 1970s, finding they encouraged arbitrary and erratic arrests, we have only replaced those laws with new ones still targeting destitute people. Since 2000, statewide arrests for vagrancy offenses have increased by 77 percent, even as arrests for disorderly conduct have decreased by 48 percent, indicating that homeless people are punished for their housing status, not their behavior.

Recently, a 49-year-old gay homeless Latino male reported he had received seven citations this month. He noted that he had been arrested 15 times since becoming homeless and that he had never been arrested before losing his housing. As he has no way of paying the citations, he says he will just wait to be taken to jail. His crime is simply resting while poor for which he has been punished mercilessly.

In the United States, one out of five homeless people reside in California, and studies indicate the urban myth that they are here for the weather and the wonderful services is just that.

This approach not only creates additional barriers to getting off the streets, but it sucks up both political capitol and government resources. The energy to pass anti-homeless measures, deploy police, and legal proceedings all cost a great deal, but only accomplish exacerbating the misery experienced by impoverished people. Politicians must raise anti-homeless fervor to pass blatantly unfair laws, resulting in less support directed toward solutions by private citizens, and public monies are diverted to an endless cycle of ticketing, courts, jails and police interactions.

Even the United Nations has noted our blatant disregard of the human rights of homeless people, blasting the practice on two recent occasions. The latest rebuke comes from a panel overseeing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which stated, “The Committee is concerned at the high number of homeless persons, who are disproportionately from racial and ethnic minorities and at the criminalization of homelessness through laws that prohibit activities such as loitering, camping, begging, and lying in public spaces.” The panel called on the U.S. to abolish such laws. Prior to that, the United Nations Human Rights Committee warned the cumulative effect was “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”

Three states are now introducing legislation to abolish this unjust practice. Colorado, California and Oregon have all introduced bills that would ensure all people have the right to rest, eat, pray and occupy a motor vehicle, as long as they are not obstructing passage or on private property without owner’s permission. This isn’t the first time a state has stepped in to halt an unjust practice, but it is an action long past due. Jailing people for being poor will be something surely future generations will look back upon with disdain. California should set the stage for the nation and be the very first to recognize this fundamental human right. Call out to pass California Senate Bill 608 and give all Californians a rest.

Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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