By Paul Thomas Jackson
The civil rights of people—whether homeless or stably housed—are also at stake in encounters and detentions by police, whose duties are ever more burdensome. As of 2016, the anti-profiling law, has taken effect, banning one’s race and one’s identity from use in reaching law-enforcement decisions. The state’s Penal Code, at section 13519.4, subdivision (f), now prohibits a peace officer from profiling the identity of a person whom the officer decides to “subject to a stop or in deciding upon the scope or substance of law enforcement activities following a stop” (id., subd. (e)) based on the person’s “actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability” (ibid.).
The anti-profiling law was not written to protect only unsheltered people. But the new law heightens the challenges of police patrol and on-call work—particularly work involving unsheltered people who have a higher rate of disability than does the general population.
(LGBTQ youth face a higher risk of homelessness than other youth. So, in case of apparent curfew violation, an officer is burdened with proving she decided to stop a young person after 10 p.m. because of his or her age and not because of any attire or appearance that might have set off the officer’s ‘gaydar.’)
Poverty or socioeconomic status is not among the identifying characteristics protected by the new law. Prior to 1941, California’s “anti-Okie” law made it a misdemeanor to bring into the state “any indigent person who is not a resident of the State, knowing him to be an indigent person.” In a landmark decision that year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Edwards_v._California), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “anti-Okie” law as unconstitutional. In so doing, the Court referred to an 1837 decision upholding an anti-poor sentiment, saying “Whatever may have been the notion then prevailing, we do not think that it will now be seriously contended that because a person is without employment and without funds he constitutes a ‘moral pestilence.’ Poverty and immorality are not synonymous.” Although difficult to prove in individual cases, the state and federal constitutions do give a person some protection from discrimination because of his poverty.
Again, the housing, health, and safety laws weren’t written with unsheltered people in mind. Within the cold and exacting way of legal machinery, abatement of makeshift shelter operates without regard to the immediate consequence of depriving its former occupants of their only shelter. Obvious as that consequence is to the knowledgeable observer, and cruel as this may sound, it has no bearing on the lawfulness of the health and safety functions carried out by the demolition of encampments. (Glad though we are social workers now arrive on the scene of the imminent demolition.)
The legal system has already spoken loudly in favor of the rights of unsheltered people who don’t panhandle aggressively; who don’t encamp or otherwise create a public nuisance; and who are simply in a public place without ‘loitering’ there. Currently, a bill is pending in the California Senate (608) that would give people the “right to rest” in public places, a right that if passed into law, would merit the respect of police, and would clarify the rights of a person, homeless though she may be.
Coldly and swiftly as the economic system may operate, the legal system has done much and may soon do more to make the lives of unsheltered people more livable. So, why, then is life so difficult for them?
The Fresno Homeless Advocates’ answer to these dilemmas is shelter: Shelter from the legal storm. It comes as a legislative enactment. It’s a statute that’s contained in the state’s Health and Safety Code; the statute permits a person or organization to establish an organized camp. Under the statute, the public health official of the County on whose geographic territory will exist authorizes the camp operator to establish it and renew the application annually.
Around the country, there are about 480 such camps, being governed by the laws of their respective jurisdictions. In Fresno County, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, and church-affiliated groups operate organized camps. And, although the statute wasn’t written for homeless people, in particular, there is no reason it can’t be employed in their favor. Nor does the organized camp statute require a camp be in a wilderness area. But, if lying within the limits of a city, the proposed camp is subject to the zoning jurisdiction of the city.
Late last year, the public health official of Santa Clara County authorized such camps for homeless people there. Further, the San Jose City Council partnered in permitting organized camps for the homeless in that city. One difference in the operation of the camp is that no adult supervision is required for campers over the age of 17. In partnering, that city council found neither zoning nor environmental concerns were raised by the application to operate an organized camp there.
The Fresno Homeless Advocates’ vision for organized camps here embraces the immediate and short-term needs of the unsheltered population here, who are mostly older men and all enrollees to be over that age. Without this legal protection, unsheltered people are subject to the cold, heartless requirements of whatever jurisdiction they happen upon on their life journeys. Even the closest adherence to the anti-profiling law and the passage of the “Right to Rest” Act don’t necessarily ensure the stable living situation of an ably-directed organized camp intended for the homeless.
In a letter sent March 12, 2014, we stated our vision for organized camps. Yes, that is two years ago, and 20 months before the local government in San Jose deferred to similar recommendations of homeless advocates there. Our March 2014 letter was sent simultaneously by first-class mail to ten City officials: Mayor Swearengin, city manager Rudd, purchasing manager MacDonald; and councilmen Baines, Brand, Brandau, Caprioglio, Olivier, Quintero, and Xiong. Thus, the letter constitutes “official communication” with the City.
Our 2014 letter further invites the City of Fresno to partner with homeless advocates here, much as the City of San Jose has recently done with homeless advocates there. The letter proposes that the City of Fresno purchase certain lots of land lying south of downtown, away from public view, and still within reach of services vital to homeless people. The letter does not insist the City do so. But it suggests the proposal would serve the City’s bottom line, inasmuch as the proposed partnership would improve the City’s posture in any future civil rights litigation involving the homeless.
One might imagine an attorney for the City showing a jury all of the good things her client has made possible for unsheltered people by partnering with operators of organized camps for them. The attorney says, ‘We do so much to help homeless people. And now we’re being sued for treating them unequally?’
Two full years have elapsed without a formal response to our March 2014 letter. A few Councilmembers have had tête-a-tête with homeless advocates. But the 12-page letter—and its 45 footnotes citing applicable state laws and regulations, as well as 20 direct references to the Fresno Municipal Code throughout— have not gained due attention of the City, whose officials rest on their ostensible laurels, the HUD-funded Renaissance projects having a total of 121 dwelling units for formerly homeless people. Although not intended for the very long term, the total start-up costs of organized camps would be but a small fraction of the costs for such housing projects!
It is high time the City give a formal response to the March 2014 letter. The residents of this city deserve to know that elected officials care about the plight of the homeless as was expressed by the words they spoke at their workshop on homelessness held in February 2014. For every Fresno resident who would like a formal response to that letter, a petition will be available at the Fresno Center for Nonviolence (FCNV) for signature. To lessen the plight of unsheltered people and to hold elected officials accountable for their words, please visit FCNV at your earliest convenience and consider signing.
Paul Thomas Jackson is an L.A. native who first came to live in Fresno in 1996, transferring to Fresno State as a Public Administration major. A decade later, he prepared the claims that paved the way for the homeless lawsuit that settled for $2.35 million. He now administers the Fresno Homeless Advocates’ Facebook group of about 200 members.