Report: California cities increasingly criminalize growing homeless population 

San Francisco, along with 58 other California cities, has passed at least one law restricting homeless activity. The City outlawed "sitting and lying" in public places through a 2010 ballot initiative. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • San Francisco, along with 58 other California cities, has passed at least one law restricting homeless activity. The City outlawed "sitting and lying" in public places through a 2010 ballot initiative.
California cities, including San Francisco, have dealt with homelessness with a series of "anti-homeless laws" that are reminiscent of Jim Crow and other shameful episodes in the nation's past, according to a new report from UC Berkeley Law School.

More than 22 percent of the nation's homeless people live in California. And almost two-thirds of the country's laws passed since 1990 outlawing homeless activity – including sleeping in public, panhandling and food sharing – were in California cities, according to "California's New Vagrancy Laws," released Thursday.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws criminalizing vagrancy in the early 1970s. But following the "explosion" of homeless people on the nation's streets in the 1980s, the banned vagrancy laws returned in different forms, according to the report.

A total of 58 cities in California have passed at least one law restricting homeless activity, the report found. Combined, those cities have passed a total of 500 "anti-homeless laws." That includes San Francisco, which outlawed "sitting and lying" in public places through a controversial 2010 ballot initiative.

San Francisco issues 3,000 citations a year for crimes such as sleeping, standing or begging in public, according to the report, and nearly all of those are for violations of a local law.

Arrests of homeless people are also increasing. Statewide, the arrest rate for "vagrancy" offenses increased 77 percent since 2000, according to the report, even as busts for drunkenness and disorderly conduct decreased.

The effect is "reminiscent of Jim Crow, sundown town, anti-Okie, and ‘ugly’ laws that targeted marginalized groups," said Paul Boden, a former director of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness who is now executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which was involved with compiling the report.

California cities have more anti-homeless laws on their books than cities in other states, an "expensive and inhumane whack-a-mole approach to homelessness," said UC Berkeley law professor Jeffrey Selbin, who helped oversee the study.

Thanks in part to housing prices and the cost of living statewide, homelessness is on the rise. The number of people living on the streets increased by 5 percent in California from 2012 to 2013, while dropping by 4 percent nationwide.

The number of homeless children in California increased by 20 percent.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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