By Gerry Bill
There are noises coming out of the State Capitol about possible legislation designed to benefit the homeless. It is hard to know how much credence one should attach to these rumblings, but there is a small chance that something good might happen. Let me update you on two proposals before the current legislature—the “Sleep in Your Vehicle” bill that passed the Assembly but is bottled up in the State Senate, and the “No Place Like Home” proposal coming out of the State Senate.
How the “Sleep in Your Vehicle” Bill was killed by Valley Legislators
This is a story about how a deliberate inaction on the part of some State Senators was enough to kill a bill designed to help the homeless. The bill, first introduced into the Assembly by Democrat Kansen Chu of San Jose, would have prohibited local governments from passing laws that ban sleeping in legally parked vehicles. Seems simple enough. It passed the 80-member, Democrat-controlled Assembly with 56 votes on June 1, 2015, with mostly Democratic support.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, three out of four California cities have laws banning sleeping in vehicles—laws that typically are enforced only against homeless people. Most homeless do not even have cars, but for those fortunate enough to have one, the car is often the safest and most comfortable place for them to sleep.
While working with the homeless in Fresno over the last several years we have encountered several people who were surviving by sleeping in their cars. At least six current or former residents of the Dakota EcoGarden had been sleeping in their cars before they came to live at the garden. I contacted the Fresno Police Department to learn about Fresno’s rules when it comes to sleeping in legally parked vehicles and was told we have no law banning napping in vehicles but that people are not allowed to live in vehicles. The person to whom I spoke could not say what City ordinance banned living in vehicles, but I found Municipal Code Sec. 14-1021, “Use of Streets for Habitation Prohibited.” That code section refers to habitation, not sleeping, but I suppose officers would apply their own interpretation. Sleeping overnight, for example, might constitute habitation in the eyes of the law.
When the bill, AB718, went to the State Senate, it passed out of the Governance and Finance Committee with a 4-1 favorable vote on July 8. Where it ran into trouble was on the floor of the Senate where the supporters were only able to muster 18 votes–15 Democrats and 3 Republicans. This was a Democrat-sponsored measure, and the Democrats have a 26-14 majority in the Senate. Just 21 votes would have been necessary to pass the measure. What happened? Well, the bill was not killed by open Democratic opposition. Only four Democrats actually voted against it. The real culprits were the seven Democrats who declined to vote (only one Republican declined to vote). It was the non-voting Democrats, combined with the Republican opposition, that killed the bill.
According to the Sacramento Bee (October 9, 2015), a relatively small group of legislators were the main reason for most bill failures in 2015. It was a combination of Republicans and so-called moderate Democrats that created the roadblocks that derailed Democrat-sponsored measures. The Sacramento Bee calls these Democrats “mods” and says they “generally represent inland districts and are more sympathetic to oil, tobacco and other business interests.” In the Assembly that category included local Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (now resigned from the Assembly) who failed to vote for AB718. It passed the Assembly anyway, but Perea’s failure to vote was essentially a no vote.
In the Senate, our Central Valley Republican Senators (Fuller & Vidak) both voted against the bill. The two Democratic Senators from the valley, Cathleen Galgiana of Manteca and Richard Pan of Sacramento, failed to vote, helping kill the bill. Our Central Valley legislators, Republican or Democrat, appear to be not very supportive of homeless rights issues.
Even though the bill was voted down, I should mention that it could still come up again this year for a vote in the Senate. When the bill was voted down it was rescued by Senator Ben Hueso of Imperial County. He got the Senate to approve a motion to reconsider the bill, then immediately had it put in the inactive file, meaning it can be brought up again during this legislative session if Hueso believes there are the votes to pass it. There is no word yet on whether that will happen. For now, the bill appears to be dead.
How the “No Place Like Home” proposal might help the homeless
The “No Place Like Home” proposal is a somewhat more hopeful story. Democratic Senator Kevin de Leon, President pro Tempore of the Senate, in January of this year unveiled a legislative package and gave it the name “No Place Like Home.” The proposal would re-purpose some Proposition 63 bond monies to provide housing for homeless with mental health issues. Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, was approved by California voters in 2004.
According to Senator de Leon’s office, “California has more than one third of the nation’s chronically homeless – those with mental illness or other significant problems, and an even higher percentage among homeless women. Of the 28,200 chronically homeless in California, nearly 85 percent are unsheltered with this group absorbing the greatest amount of taxpayers’ resources, often topping $100,000 annually per person in public costs for emergency room visits, hospital stays, law enforcement, and other social services.” The 28,200 number, by the way, is probably way low, as it is based on the highly flawed “Point in Time Count” used by government agencies.
Among other things, de Leon’s plan would provide $2 billion in bond funds to construct permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless with mental illnesses. It would also provide $200 million over 4 years in short-term rent subsidies for supportive housing, intended to bridge the gap until the permanent housing is built.
In addition, de Leon’s plan provides for increases in SSI/SSP grants for people with disabilities and elderly unable to work, a total of 1.3 million Californians. He notes that a large portion of SSI/SSP grants usually goes for rent. We work with SSI recipients at Dakota EcoGarden and have discovered that the most they can get, generally speaking, is around $900 per month. That amount must pay for both rent and food because SSI recipients are not eligible for food stamps. That is not enough money to live on with today’s rental rates, often forcing people to choose between food and housing.
Former State Senate leader Darrell Stenberg, co-author of Proposition 63, says of the proposal: “This is a tipping-point moment for mental health, homelessness, and Proposition 63 . . . Thanks to the leadership of this Senate, we have a historic opportunity to help local communities forge systemic long-term solutions, making a real difference in the lives of thousands of forgotten Californians.”
Whether or not the plan will pass both the Assembly and Senate is still an open question. Beyond that, there is the question of how local governments will use the funds. If some of these funds come to the City of Fresno, will they just use the money for another boondoggle like the Renaissance Santa Clara, where they spent $160,000 per unit to house 69 homeless people in what turns out to be a rather unsafe, drug infested environment?
I do believe Kevin de Leon is sincere in wanting to do something to help the homeless of California. Perhaps this “No Place Like Home” initiative will make a positive difference in the lives of at least some of our homeless brothers and sisters. Let’s see where the proposal goes.
Gerry Bill is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Fresno City College, and is on the boards of the Eco Village Project of Fresno, the Fresno Free College Foundation, Peace Fresno, and the Fresno Center for Nonviolence. He is co-chair of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee, and a long-time activist in Fresno. He can be reached at gerry.bill@gmail. com.