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SB 608 "Right to Rest Act" introduced in California State Senate

by Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project
Q&A About the Right to Rest Act
The California "Right to Rest Act" has been introduced in the State Senate. The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project endorses the Act and urges everyone to educate themselves about the need for this legislation and what it will mean for people experience homelessness. Please lend your support to this effort in any way that you can.

Western Regional Advocacy Project
(415) 621-2533 – office
(415) 430-7358 – cell

Ca. Right to Rest Act of 2015 (SB 608)
Questions and Answers

The human indignity of homelessness impacts over hundreds of thousands of Californians and their communities. Ending homelessness in the most prosperous states in the nation should be a top priority of policy makers and, until this is achieved, the criminalization of people simply because they have no home must be immediately halted. The Right to Rest Act of 2015 will protect people who are homeless from citations and imprisonment resulting from resting, sharing food or practicing religion in public. Citations and jail time only worsen the condition of people without homes and their opportunities to escape homelessness. By acknowledging the failure of municipal laws to criminalize poverty and homelessness, we hope that passage of this legislation will improve the focus on more humane and effective responses to homelessness.

What problem is this legislation trying to solve?

The prevalence of homelessness in the 21st century is a result of an inexcusable failure of our economic and political system that has led not only to violations of internationally recognized human rights but also impacts the public health of entire communities. The Right to Rest Act of 2015 seeks to protect the basic human rights of people to rest by outlawing municipal laws that criminalize homelessness and the acts of resting, sharing food and practicing religion in public, thereby forcing a new conversation about how to address homelessness, its causes and its consequences.

How significant is this problem?

Homelessness is the most brutal and severe face of poverty experienced daily by 160,000 men, women, and children in California. 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.

How does criminalization of rest impact Californians who are homeless?

In recent outreach conducted by the Western Regional Advocacy Project of over 1388 homeless people in 13 communities in California, 81% percent said they were harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping, and 68% percent for loitering. This increasing penal code aggression towards the homeless mirrors a steady decline in housing stock and funding for affordable housing. Creating criminal records for people through “resting in public space” citations can keep people homeless. In one Los Angeles survey, 31 percent of homeless people surveyed lost social services, 26.8 percent lost housing, and 6.9 percent lost employment as a result of a “public space” citation.

Isn’t homelessness just a problem in some California cities?

No. Homelessness exists in most geographic regions in the state. Though homelessness is more difficult to measure in rural communities, it does exist and the barriers to escaping homelessness can be even more pronounced for rural residents. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 10% of homeless services clients live in rural areas, and 20% are in suburban areas. These data exclude people who did not or could not access targeted homeless assistance services because they live in rural areas. Homeless shelters are virtually nonexistent in rural communities and most health and social services accessible to indigent persons are located in areas with larger and denser populations. According to a recent report by the U.C. Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, 58 cities were studied and revealed to have enacted at least 500 anti-homeless laws – nearly nine laws per city on average.

With the mortgage foreclosure, aren’t there plenty of homes to go around?

The foreclosure crisis resulted in more people seeking rentals and, as a result, rental markets have the lowest vacancy rates in a decade causing rental costs to remain high throughout the recession.

How much does it cost to rent a home in California?

According to the Urban Institute’s 2011 Out of Reach report, on average in 2011 a household needs to earn $18.46 an hour, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to afford a two-bedroom home at the Fair Market Rent in California.

How much will this bill cost?

We are spending more than $300 million a year incarcerating homeless people in California for things like resting. When fewer people are jailed and cited because they were resting in public, it allows these funds to be diverted to less costly, more effective and more humane responses to homelessness – like housing people rather than jailing them.

Isn’t homelessness a local problem? Why should the state dictate how localities handle it?

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has advocated the approach as being good for local governments. The federal government has said the same thing: criminalizing rest in public spaces does not solve homelessness, and can make it worse.

What Can Cities Do about Homelessness if Sleeping & Resting Ordinances are Banned?

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, most cities continued to see increases in homelessness despite the recovering economy and report that they are struggling to meet the increased need. This report also states that people experiencing homelessness are increasingly difficult to serve. The report found that:

• Among households with and without children, unemployment led the list of causes of homelessness cited by city officials. This was followed by lack of affordable housing.
• Because no beds are available for them, emergency shelters in two thirds of the survey cities must turn away homeless families.

While homelessness is a problem faced by cities across the state, criminalizing people who are homeless does not solve homelessness and is not a tool that works to make it better. Instead, it makes people who experience short bouts of homelessness more likely to remain homeless and make cities vulnerable to litigation. It also diverts resources that could be better spent on preventing homelessness and masks the underlying problem of lack of housing available for people with very low-incomes and housing supports for people who need them in order to remain housed.

How will cities deal with people’s bad behavior in public spaces if this Legislation passes?

The Right to Rest Act would not affect localities’ ability to enforce laws against assault, drunkeness in public, harassment, trespassing or blocking passageways. It would only end the practice of arresting or citing for the simple acts of resting, sharing food or practicing religion in public.

Doesn’t the Right to Rest Act Incentivize Homelessness?

Homelessness is not a state that most people chose. In most California cities, there are far more homeless people than there are shelter beds, and the public housing waiting lists are long. Even when shelter beds are available, they often fail to meet the needs of families to stay together, for women, for elderly or for victims of trauma. Instead, the data shows that homelessness is caused simply by the lack of affordable housing. When the federal government stopped funding new public housing—spending dropped from over $16 million per year in 1978 to nothing since 1996—homelessness tripled or quadrupled in every major US city and has risen steadily since. Homelessness as we know it is not a choice.

How do criminalization policies impact families with children?

Families with children have been one of the fastest growing groups of homeless people, representing over 40% of the nation’s homeless in 2009 according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. In California, child homelessness is high. The National Center on Family Homelessness has given California a rank of 49th worst in the number of homeless children and 48th worst in the percentage of children who are homeless. According to data collected by the McKinney-Vento Educational Programs more than 526,708 California children experienced homelessness in 2013. Of the 2,200,000 children living in poverty in California, thirteen percent are homeless. The lack of affordable housing for low-income families and shelters that allow families to remain together further contributes to the growth in family homelessness. Even when children are able to be housed temporarily in youth shelters or with a friend or family member, their parents are frequently facing anti-rest ordinances that outlaw sleeping in cars, even when parked legally. Homeless parents have also reported problems avoiding anti-sitting ordinances as they wait for the end of their child’s school day.

What impact does homelessness have on children?

Homeless families are twice as likely as middle-income families to report that their children have moderate or severe health problems such as asthma, dental problems, and emotional difficulties. Many of these families and children have experienced trauma prior to becoming homeless, and homelessness can exacerbate the consequences of trauma or re-traumatize a child. Homeless children are sick four times as often as middle class children and have high rates of acute and chronic illnesses. In addition, they suffer from emotional or behavioral problems that interfere with learning at almost three times the rate of other children. Homeless children between 6 and 17 years struggle with high rates of mental health problems, with 47% experiencing anxiety, depression, or withdrawal, as compared to 18% of other school-age children. Homeless children get sick twice as often as other children.

What impact does homelessness have on an adult who is homeless?

People who don’t have homes are more vulnerable to harm caused by crime and violence; prolonged standing; excessive outdoor exposure; and airborne infectious diseases due to overcrowding. On average, homeless adults have 8 to 9 concurrent medical illnesses, commonly suffering from skin conditions, respiratory infections, tooth decay, foot problems, vision disturbances, and trauma. Chronic diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma, are prevalent among people without homes and are more difficult to manage. Preventive tests are underutilized because of time and funding constraints and because patients tend to present with acute care needs that require immediate attention. People who don’t have homes also don’t have a place to safely store medications where they won’t be exposed to the elements or be stolen. They have limited access to water to drink, dental care, and personal hygiene. Without a home, people are less able to safely store or prepare food and so are more likely to succumb to food borne illnesses.

What impact does homelessness have on women?

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are common among homeless girls and women, as a result of limited access to reproductive health services, prostitution, and survival sex (sex in exchange for food or temporary shelter). Twenty-six percent of female street youths (28% of male street youths and 10% of shelter youths) report having participated in survival sex, which is associated with older age, more days away from home, victimization, criminal behaviors, substance use, suicide attempts, STIs, and pregnancy. Homeless women have a pregnancy rate about twice the national rate, which can be attributed to higher incidence of prostitution, survival sex, and limited access to contraception.

What is the biggest cause for the increase in homelessness?

In addition to increasing poverty and child poverty, a steady decline in housing stock and funding for affordable housing has contributed to homelessness. These figures in the Western Regional Advocacy Project report Without Housing document this trend.

• Between 1978 and 1983, HUD budget authority shrank from $83 billion to little more than $18 billion in 2004 constant dollars, and since then has never been more than $32 billion except for in 2009 and 2010 because of Recovery Act funding.

• HUD Funding for new public housing units has been zero since 1996. Meanwhile, since 1995, 360,000 housing units have been lost. HUD estimates that approximately 100,000 units are sold or destroyed each year.

• Since 1995, 360,000 project-based units of Section 8 housing have been lost and another 900,0000 of these units have contracts set to expire before 2014, accounting for the long waitlists for housing assistance. As a result, current funding for the voucher program meets the needs of only one-quarter of homeless families.

• From 1976-1985, a yearly average of almost 31,000 new Section 515 rural affordable housing units were built; from 1986-2005, the average yearly production was 8170, a 74 percent reduction and in 2011 only 763 units were built.

How can federal funding for homelessness be increased during a time of fiscal belt tightening? Federal expenditures on housing has not decreased over time, instead, it has shifted to subsidizing home ownership. Home ownership mortgage deductions in 2012 were $131 billion, while total funding in federal low-income housing assistance programs was under $50 billion. The biggest tax benefits go to Americans who have taken out big mortgages for expensive homes.
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