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UC Berkeley report: California cities ‘criminalize’ homeless

Birdie, shown with her dog Keetcha, was given a notice to vacate her camp along the American River Parkway near Del Paso and Northgate in 2012. A UC Berkeley study being released this week finds that California local governments are increasingly passing and enforcing laws that have the effect of criminalizing homelessness.
Birdie, shown with her dog Keetcha, was given a notice to vacate her camp along the American River Parkway near Del Paso and Northgate in 2012. A UC Berkeley study being released this week finds that California local governments are increasingly passing and enforcing laws that have the effect of criminalizing homelessness. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Cities across California are becoming more aggressive in citing and arresting homeless people for simple activities like standing, sitting or resting in public places, according to a report released Thursday by a legal clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.

The report, unveiled by the Berkeley law school’s Policy Advocacy Clinic, finds that local laws against vagrancy are increasingly “criminalizing” the homeless in an effort to drive them from communities and “make them someone else’s problem.”

Clinic students from the law school and the school of public policy analyzed municipal codes in 58 California cities, including Sacramento, which is facing a constitutional challenge to its camping ordinance. The researchers found that more cities are enforcing laws that prohibit resting, sleeping or lodging in public places.

About one in five homeless people in the United States reside in California, according to the report. The state has 12 percent of the nation’s population but more than 22 percent of the country’s homeless people, it says.

The authors conducted case studies in San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego, and found that authorities are increasingly citing and arresting people “based on people’s status, being homeless, and not on behaviors like drunkenness and disorderly conduct.”

The report found that illegal camping citations have surged in recent years in Sacramento County. Park rangers there issued nearly 1,200 such citations in 2012, compared to about 50 two years earlier, according to the research. They issued nearly 800 citations last year, the report says.

Authorities relied on Sacramento’s illegal camping code for 69 percent of total municipal code enforcement and half of all enforcement under state and local codes when issuing homeless-related citations, the report says.

The authors assert that the actions are costly to communities that would be better served focusing on establishing affordable housing and jobs for homeless people. The laws also raise troubling constitutional issues, the researchers say.

Sacramento civil rights lawyer Mark Merin made a similar argument on behalf of local homeless people in court last month. The plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of the city’s camping ordinance, which states that it is unlawful for anyone to camp on any public or private property, with some exceptions.

Senior deputy city attorney Chance Trimm, who represents Sacramento in the case, said Merin’s lawsuit and the Berkeley report incorrectly assert that the city’s camping ordinance “targets” homeless people.

“It doesn’t target homeless people. It’s neutral on its face,” Trimm said. “It targets a particular type of activity, camping.” The ordinance addresses public health and safety, “all things that the city has an interest in protecting,” he added.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld the city’s ban on camping, but left open the possibility that the ordinance is not evenly enforced, to the detriment of the homeless. That would be a violation of equal protection provisions of the U.S. and California constitutions.

Further proceedings are expected on that point in the lower courts.

The Berkeley report calls for state action that would ensure more consistent enforcement of laws that affect the homeless, better tracking of data about citations given to homeless people, directing resources toward longer-term solutions to homelessness.

The full report, titled “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State,” is available online.

Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.

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