By Jim Sanders
California law protects its residents from discrimination based on sex, race, religion and sexual orientation.
Now a state lawmaker is pushing to add another category to the list: homelessness.
New legislation titled the "Homeless Bill of Rights" by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is meant to keep communities from rousting people who have nowhere to turn.
The measure is sure to be controversial in cities such as Sacramento, which has battled for years over "tent cities" for homeless people, and San Francisco, where voters passed an ordinance barring sitting or lying on sidewalks.
The heart of Assembly Bill 5 would give legal protection to people engaging in life-sustaining activities on public property. Among other activities, it specifically mentions sleeping, congregating, panhandling, urinating and "collecting and possessing goods for recyling, even if those goods contain alcoholic residue."
Ammiano declined to comment to The Bee on Thursday about the bill. His measure also would give homeless residents the right to sleep in cars that are legally parked, to receive funds through public welfare programs, to receive legal counsel when cited -- even for infractions -- and to possess personal property on public lands. Local officials could not force the homeless into shelters or social service programs.
If the bill passes and is signed into law, courts would be left to sort out the extent to which communities could limit the legal rights it conveys -- for example, whether local ordinances could close parks during late-night hours for public safety reasons.
The bill states that homeless Californians have the right to safe, affordable housing and 24-hour access to clean water and safe restrooms, but Paul Boden, a spokesman for one of its sponsors, said the measure is not meant to require cities and counties to add new facilities.
Boden and other advocates of AB5 say that existing laws to sweep the homeless from public view are similar to Jim Crow laws of decades ago in the segregated South, and to "anti-Okie" laws of the 1930s that prohibited bringing extremely poor people into California.
The measure "would require local governments to leave people in peace who are not committing crimes," said Boden, who describes his group as a collective of West Coast social justice organizations.
Boden said homeless people routinely tell him they have been harassed for sleeping, loitering or sitting down, and the bill's supporters maintain that constitutes an attack on basic civil rights.
"Homelessness is a condition, it's not a voluntary choice," said Sacramento attorney Mark Merin, a longtime advocate for the homeless who spoke at a Capitol rally Thursday supporting the bill.
Jack Larson, 52, said he has been a homeless Sacramentan for five years and has been cited dozens of times for panhandling. He said he hopes AB5 would enable him to solicit money and sleep in public without harassment.
"They need to go catch murderers and burglars -- and leave us panhandlers alone," he said.
Dianna Buettner, a Stockton high school teacher who attended Thursday's rally, added that "houseless people need to be treated like everybody else -- it's not a crime to be without a house."
Assemblyman Curt Hagman, a Chino Hills Republican, said he has not seen the bill but that the state should carefully weigh whether it would violate the rights of other Californians by giving the homeless legal permission to congregate, sleep and sustain themselves on public property.
"We do have a safety net in this society," Hagman said. "If you don't use it, that's your right, but you shouldn't impose your lifestyle on everybody else."
Neither the League of California Cities nor the California State Association of Counties has taken a position.
But Eva Spiegel, spokeswoman for the league, said the group generally "favors policies that allow local flexibility to address homelessness issues or other land-use issues because of the unique circumstances in each jurisdiction."
For years, Sacramento has wrestled with how best to respond to hundreds of homeless people who often sleep near the city's two rivers or within walking distance of food distribution or other social service programs.
Several months ago, Sacramento city officials agreed to pay $796,000 to 1,143 people whose property was seized and destroyed during raids on illegal campsites since 2005.
Last September, Sacramento County rangers launched night patrols in the American River Parkway in an intensified effort to root out and evict scores of homeless people camping illegally.
During Sacramento's offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, more than 100 arrests were made of protesters seeking to remain in Cesar Chavez Plaza after the park's 11 p.m. weekday or midnight weekend curfew.
Advocates say the homeless, some of them mentally ill, often are looked down upon, threatened, verbally abused and otherwise harassed because of their appearance or mannerisms. In one of the most extreme examples, a Los Angeles woman was doused with a flammable liquid and set ablaze last week while on a bus bench outside a 24-hour Walgreens store.
"These people are poor people, our poor people, and if we don't recognize that, then we're lost," said Kevin Carter, urban outreach coordinator for the Occupy Sacramento group.
But former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness, now a Sacramento radio host, said government exists partly to maintain sanitation, discourage the spread of disease, and ensure public safety.
"That's the expectation, that's why people pay taxes -- that's what they want from the police," McGinness said.
The bill could make it easier for a homeless person to subsist, but California might be better served by targeting root problems causing homelessness, he said.
"Do you want to see people living like that?" McGinness said. "I don't."
The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)