by Zachary Lathouris
A man sits on the ground across the street from Bank of America. He doesn’t want his picture taken and won’t give me his name but calls himself “Delilah” after his dog.
“I can barely afford to feed myself, and I have a pocket full of tickets that I got for sitting on a curb,” Delilah says.
Further down the road a man named Mike stands with a cardboard sign that reads “Any Help?” There are 10 people behind him in a grassy null to the side of the Safeway parking lot. A security guard is standing outside of the entrance to Safeway with his arms crossed, he never takes his eyes off the group.
In the plaza by the statue of Willam McKinley, a women who calls herself Sunflower talks about how she’s been homeless for 10 years.
“The most recent ticket I received was for asking a college student for food as they came out of a grocery store,” Sunflower says.
Within the last two years, both Arcata and Eureka have passed strict new laws concerning things like sleeping in public, panhandling and loitering. Ordinance 856 outlaws sitting and Ordinance 854 makes panhandling illegal. First time offenses are still infractions but repeat offenses could be charged as a misdemeanor.
Participant organizer for People’s Action Rights and Community (PARC) Verbena Lea is concerned about the laws.
“Every life sustaining act [for homeless people] has been made illegal,” Lea says. Lea, 41 was once homeless herself and says that she has noticed a changed in attitude towards the homeless in Arcata.
“Essentially what you’ve got is a group of people who can’t even afford to feed themselves getting tickets for things like sleeping and sitting,” she says.
These ordinances have been criticized around the state. In 2012 an LA Time editorial called Arcata’s laws on panhandling “unconstitutionally over-broad.”
AHAR defines illegal activity as any summary offense committed, also known a misdemeanor – 3 level offense. According to AHAR 53 percent of all homeless people surveyed have participated in some sort of illegal activity. Under that broad definition of illegal activity only 53 percent of all homeless people have committed a crime. However the new ordinances widen the definition of “crime” to include such offenses as sitting.
District Attorney Paul Gallegos has said that his office spends an inordinate amount of resources prosecuting these relatively minor crimes. City attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson has been the driving force behind the anti-sitting and anti-panhandling ordinances. In 2012 alone Wilson’s office prosecuted over 300 citations given to transients.
Californian assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has framed state legislation Assembly Bill 5, also known as the Homeless Bill of Rights, in order to stop what he calls “a criminalization of the poor.”
“Today numerous laws infringe on poor peoples’ ability to exist in public space, to acquire housing, employment and basic services and to equal protection under the laws,” Ammiano told the Huffington Post. According to the bill’s legislative digest, AB 5 would give all people consider homeless certain rights. Such as the right to move freely, rest, eat, share, accept, or give food or water, and solicit donations in public spaces, as defined, and the right to lawful self-employment.
AB 5 has cleared Assembly Judiciary Committee and will be presented to the California State Assembly in January 2014.