Opinion Columns & Blogs

Gloria Sandoval: Being homeless not a crime, even in Atwater

Gloria Sandoval is president of Journey for Justice in Merced County.
Gloria Sandoval is president of Journey for Justice in Merced County.

Is Atwater intent on criminalizing the poor? That’s how it seems from reading “New Atwater rule targets homeless” (Aug. 26, Sun-Star, Page 1A).

Atwater’s new ordinance will punish people for sleeping and camping in Atwater. Councilman Joe Rivero questioned the logic but still voted for the proposal.

Such laws won’t work.

The city of Merced removed benches in Bob Hart Square in October 2014 after complaints that homeless people were “loitering.” In November 2013, the Merced City Council passed a “median solicitation ordinance” to minimize panhandling. Mayor Stan Thurston said panhandling “makes our city look bad.” In January, a homeless encampment under the Bradley Overpass was bulldozed by Caltrans.

Have the homeless disappeared? Obviously not.

Going back further, a Merced Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Homelessness was formed in 2009. After the 120 days, the majority recommended a temporary, transitional homeless encampment. The Merced City Council went with the minority. Instead of helping find a real solution, the city opted for an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” non-solution.

Ordinances such as the one Atwater adopted are being challenged nationwide because they violate the constitutional rights of those they target. The homeless often have no place to go. In Atwater, there are few services and no shelter.

Studies by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty analyzed municipal anti-homeless codes in 187 U.S. cities. A February study by UC Berkeley found 58 California cities have enacted at least 500 laws since 1990 to restrict activities such as panhandling and camping, all targeting the homeless.

The last few years have been filled with copy-cat anti-homeless ordinances seeking to make it illegal to: stand, sit or rest in public places; sleep or camp in public parks or public areas, including in vehicles; beg or panhandle; share food.

Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, wrote California’s “Right to Rest” legislation, SB 608. The bill calls for a right to move freely, rest, sleep, pray and be protected in public spaces. It also includes a right to protect oneself from the elements in a nonobstructive way. It gives those with a car the right to occupy a legally parked vehicle, and guarantees a right to share and consume food in public. It failed to advance in the Legislature this year.

Issuing citations and fines to homeless persons further penalizes them and threatens them with jail time – an inefficient use of tax dollars.

This response only perpetuates the poverty in which the homeless live and puts many more at risk, including children. The California Central Valley Journey for Justice is one of more than 140 endorsers of the Right to Rest model legislation.

Homeless people are the visibly poor, but others can be just one paycheck from homelessness.

The Merced County Continuum of Care has its heart in the right place but is overwhelmed by the increasing number of homeless.

A consultant working with Continuum of Care is needed just to keep up with ever-changing regulations and apply for scarce federal grants. More help is needed.

Local government needs to research the effectiveness of programs in comparable cities to assist in solving or preventing homelessness.

Access to public restrooms would solve some of the legitimate issues that business owners have raised. This would also be a convenience to shoppers with children who often “can’t wait” until they get home. Businesses and landlords need to assist Continuum of Care in finding real solutions and not continue to press for solutions that criminalize our poor.

This is a complex social issue, not a law enforcement issue. One suggestion would be to align stakeholder incentives to motivate them to work together to house, rather than criminalize, homeless people.

Homeless veterans deserve to be housed; but so do others. Cold weather is approaching – solutions are desperately needed. We don’t need to simply count the homeless; we need to house them. This community belongs to all of us.

Gloria Sandoval is president of Journey for Justice in Merced County.