The Right to Rest Act is Back

State Sen. Carol Liu (D – La Cañada-Flintridge) reintroduced the legislation on January 15.

If passed, the act now known as Senate Bill 876, would protect people’s right to rest, sit, sleep, pray, share food in public or lie down unobtrusively without the threat of citation or arrest.

In a statement, Liu said SB 876 is designed to end discrimination against homeless people.

In the same month, a $2 billion state initiative to give out funding to cities for permanent supportive housing was also announced. But developing such housing would still take years while people without housing face criminalization for life-sustaining activities, said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.

“No plan or strategy to end homelessness is complete without ceasing the failed politics that ticket or jail people for sleeping, eating or sitting in public when they have no other place to go,” he said.

The legislation would supersede at least 500 municipal ordinances throughout California that penalize homeless acts. Last year, a University of California, Berkeley Law School report found that cities enact an average of nine anti-homeless laws. San Francisco has the most of such laws with 23.

California, with only 12 percent of the country’s overall population but 22 percent of its homeless population and 25 percent of its homeless veteran population, is at the epicenter of the criminalization of homelessness. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, California cities are substantially more likely than cities in other states to ban rest. While only 33 percent of non-California cities restrict this activity, 74 percent of California cities ban the practice.

Researchers from the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley Law School analyzed the prevalence of these types of municipal codes restricting rest and sharing of food in 58 California cities for its report “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State.” Researchers identified over 500 municipal laws criminalizing standing, sitting, resting, sleeping and sharing of food in public places as well as laws making it illegal to ask for money, nearly nine laws per city, on average. The study also found that the number of ordinances targeting those behaviors rose along with the rise in homelessness following the sharp decline of federal funding for affordable housing that was cut in the early 1980s and again with the Great Recession in 2008.

Criminalizing necessary life-sustaining practices not only worsens the condition of people without homes, but also narrows their opportunities to escape homelessness. By acknowledging the failure of municipal laws that criminalize poverty and homelessness, proponents hope that passage of this legislation will improve the focus on more humane and effective responses to homelessness.

An earlier version of the bill, SB 608, was heard by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee last year, but Liu withdrew her request for a vote because it lacked support to move forward.

The new version has been assigned to the Transportation and Housing, and Judiciary committees.

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