FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Andy Beres: (202) 638-2535; firstname.lastname@example.org
DECEMBER 3, 2012 -- Today, the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act was introduced into the California State Assembly by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).
This comes following months of advocacy by a coalition of poverty organizations, including the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), Jericho: A Voice for Justice, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center).
This past June, the Law Center helped pass a similar law in Rhode Island, making it the first state to spell out homeless persons' rights. Building off of the community organizing that led to this success, advocates across the country have been working on similar bills. California's is the first since Rhode Island's to be introduced to a state legislature.
"At a time when communities across the country are passing laws criminalizing homelessness, we're very gratified to see California take the first steps toward recognizing homeless persons' fundamental rights," said Heather Johnson, civil rights attorney at the Law Center and principal author of Criminalizing Crisis, a 2011 study documenting the disturbing trend toward making homelessness illegal.
"California has a long history of using discriminatory laws to keep 'undesirable' people out of public places and to hide our bigger social problems. From the Ugly Laws of the mid-19th century-which made it a crime to have a visible disability in public-through the anti-Okie law of the Great Depression-which made it a crime for poor people to enter the state-up through the present, both state and local governments have used these laws to punish or conceal poor people," said Paul Boden, organizing director of WRAP. "But as long as these laws have existed, there's been resistance. Every single one of those laws has been struck down. We're introducing this bill of rights because we believe that the time has come to address the wrongs and most importantly stop them from ever happening again."
The effort is a collaboration between WRAP, Jericho: A Voice for Justice, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Judith Larson of Jericho said, "This is the essence of what Jericho was formed to do, and has continued to do for the past 25 years."
WRAP has conducted over 800 surveys concerning homeless people's interactions with law enforcement. 82% of survey respondents had been hassled by law enforcement for sleeping. 78% had had interactions with law enforcement simply because they'd been hanging out in a public space. 77% had been harassed by law enforcement for sitting down. Becky Dennison, Co-Director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said, "When we've criminalized sleeping, standing, and sitting down, we've basically criminalized a person's existence. A bill like this is long overdue."
The Act would guarantee homeless people freedom from discrimination in law enforcement, employment, housing and shelter, and public benefits. It protects people's right to use public space, to keep personal property, and to engage in life-sustaining activities. It also guarantees people the right to counsel in any case where they're being prosecuted. Paula Lomazzi from Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee said, "These are basic rights that allow all people to stay alive and engage in a democratic society-things most of us get to take for granted, but which remain a daily challenge for many of the poorest members of our communities."
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The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is a leader in the movement to end and prevent homelessness. It works to achieve this through advocacy, public education, and impact litigation.