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What America's Most Vulnerable Need: A Bill of Rights for the Homeless

Paul Boden, a homeless rights advocate for 30 years, is helping groups around the country draft legislation to help the homeless.

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In the outreach that we did to over 850 homeless people in 13 cities, by far, sleeping, loitering and sitting on the sidewalk are the major offenses homeless people say they are committing. I’m talking 82 percent of the people say they were harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping, 77 percent for loitering. 

We did a bunch of research and looked back at a lot of old laws: the Jim Crow laws, the Ugly Laws. They used local ordinances, they used state misdemeanors to target a specific sub-segment of the community. There were sundown laws where you were literally told: “Don’t let the sun come down on you.” You could come in during the day and work as a laborer, but when the sun came down, so did you. We have historic images: "Hey, Jap, don’t let the sun come down on you." That was Northern California. Or, "Hey, nigger, don’t let the sun come down on you." That was Southern California. They were very direct and very specific.

The Ugly Laws were about disabled people in public spaces. The first city to pass the law was 1867 in San Francisco; the last city to take it off their books was in the 1970s in Chicago. And just what we see with the sit-lie laws, these laws spread from town to town. …

So this reactionary approach by local governments criminalizing the presence of a specific subset of a community has a long history in this country. It has different names but every 30 or 40 years we seem to go through this cycle.

Today, it’s homeless people; tomorrow it’s going to be someone else. And so our attempt now is to do the public education work, to show people that we have a history of doing this. Not only is our attempt to stop the criminalization of poor and homeless people today, but to create law that says never again are we going to let you create local laws that discriminate against a specific set of the community. No one could sit there and tell us, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.” Well, it has happened before, it’s happening now and it sure as hell is going to happen again unless we proactively do something to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

Nieves: About the California Bill of Rights: You acknowledge that the bill is likely to be amended several times over. But as it is written, it would prohibit bans on public urination and sleeping on stoops. That doesn’t seem likely to survive the amendment process, does it? People will say they don’t want people urinating in front of them or sleeping in front of their property. Or they don’t want someone panhandling in front of their business.

Boden: Then let’s deal with poverty, let’s deal with homelessness, let’s deal with whatever the issue is … but to say that I don’t want to see this person therefore I’m going to create laws that makes this person’s presence illegal. 

Part of our bill calls for hygiene centers, to be connected to health centers that already exist. We don’t want people urinating or defecating on the streets. I would agree with that. We want to create healthy, housed, hygienic communities. We’re all for that.  

So let’s open up alternatives, and then if the person chooses not to access the alternatives, then, well, dude, you’re on your own. But right now, if someone’s got to go to the bathroom, they’ve go to go to the bathroom. It’s not easy to find a public restroom, one that’s not “for customers only.” If we’re going to make it illegal for people to perform that life-sustaining activity, you can’t just say to them, “Hold it in.” That doesn’t work. If we’re going to make it illegal, it’s just humane to say, “Here’s an alternative.”

I’ve been to shower centers and they have long lists every day of people who wait for hours and hours to take a shower. It’s not that people don’t want to take a shower, it’s that there ain't nothing there for them. I was just in Portland and there was a four-hour wait for a shower program. So it’s not that people don’t want to be clean.... We create that alternative and voila! Just like we build housing and sure as hell people will fill it....

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