A Bill of Rights for the homeless?

When Assemblymember Tom Ammiano proposed a Bill of Rights for the homeless, the response was swift – and sharply divided.


Many observers called it extreme, one newspaper described it as “an embarrassment,” while others defended it vigorously, lauding it as a move long overdue. Among other things, the bill would protect homeless people from being targeted by law enforcement for sleeping and congregating in public places.


As Ammiano’s AB 5 enters the legislative arena, it’s not likely that there will be a lessening of emotions on the issue.


While most people recognize the suffering of the homeless and are sympathetic to their condition, the public is divided on the potential solutions. So in considering Ammiano’s bill, officially called the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, legislators will face widely differing emotions and philosophies among their constituencies.


Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, represents the 17th District.  A former public school teacher, the first to make his gay sexual orientation a matter of public knowledge, he founded a movement to defeat an initiative advanced to ban gay people from teaching in California.  He was elected to the San Francisco School Board in 1990 and spearheaded a decision to include a gay and lesbian sensitivity curriculum in the San Francisco Unified School District, making it one of the most diverse and inclusive in the nation.


Capitol Weekly posed several questions to Ammiano about his new legislation.


In a newspaper piece, attorney Mark Merin contends that homelessness is a condition, not a voluntary choice. How do you feel about Merin’s characterization?


Mark Merin is absolutely correct. Surveys have shown that only a small minority of people who are homeless say they have chosen it. Shelters turn away many homeless seeking temporary abodes. Even under the best of circumstances, the homeless face arbitrary destruction of their possessions and are turned away from private businesses and public facilities, giving them no place to carry on life-sustaining activities. Why would they choose to live like that? The answer is they don’t. To suggest that they do is an insult to those who have lost jobs and homes due to the economy or been driven out of their homes by domestic violence or are suffering from life-disrupting mental illness.


The Sacramento Bee calls your bill “an embarrassment” and describes a “nightmare scenario” where a homeless man takes over a doorway of a local store as his “home” and efforts by the shopkeeper and police to turn him away are barred by your bill if it is enacted into law.  Could this be reality or has the example been overstated?


The Bee should be embarrassed by that editorial. It seems to be based on a laughably simplified misreading of the bill. In the process of getting rights for the homeless, I don’t want to trample on anyone else’s rights. That’s not what I’m about. Arguing about imagined worst cases is not going to get anyone anywhere. Let’s talk about the issues.


Some people are saying that your bill establishes rights for a particular segment of society while violating the rights of others.  What’s your response?


I pay taxes, too. I, and the people who voted overwhelmingly to re-elect me, don’t believe that giving equal rights to one group of human beings takes rights away from anyone else. I stand for equality. What this bill seeks is fair application of laws, including to a group that has not been treated fairly: the homeless. The Bee claimed this bill distracts from providing resources to the homeless. It’s quite the opposite: I have always advocated for more services, and if cities and counties would have accessible restrooms and drinking water for people forced to live on the streets, much of this would not be an argument. They don’t provide it and that is what the homeless deal with every day and why this bill is needed.


Shouldn’t the bill have been a part of a broader plan that points to a solution?  And what might the elements of such a plan be?


For some reason, we don’t hear this outcry when the state budget is being balanced on the backs of those who are most in need, cutting the safety net that keeps some people from homelessness and making it that much more difficult for those who are already homeless. We hear it when homelessness threatens to make us uncomfortable. As someone who has consistently fought those cuts and has shouted into the wind to bring in more revenue to provide programs, I’m honestly insulted that people suggest I’m the one forgetting that the solutions include more housing, more mental health services, more drug treatment programs, higher minimum wages, and stronger anti-violence and anti-discrimination programs.

Ed’s Note Jim Cameron is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly


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