Several weeks ago, state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) proposed a sweeping set of protections for the homeless that have sparked almost as much controversy as the homeless themselves.
The Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, as AB 5 is titled, would guarantee the homeless the right to live in public much as other people do in their homes. They could sit, sleep, move about and engage in "life-sustaining activities that must be carried out in public spaces because of homelessness," such as eating, urinating and collecting trash to recycle. Under the bill, they could not be forced into shelters, but would have access to them. It also mandates that public bathrooms be available around the clock and protects the "basic human right" to panhandle.
AB 5 has already been derided for essentially turning the homeless into a protected class, and for encouraging behavior that is unhealthy and undesirable. Ammiano has acknowledged that the bill in its current introductory state is "aspirational." Ironically, the part of the bill that would be most difficult to enact is the most important one: the "right to safe, decent, permanent, affordable housing, as soon as possible."
Ammiano's bill is part of a heated debate that has been underway in cities for many years: how to balance the rights of homeless people who are down on their luck or mentally ill or drug addicted against the rights of residents and business owners to clean streets and safe, habitable neighborhoods. While we sympathize with its spirit, we don't support it. The solution is not to sanction the culture of homelessness or to offer blanket approval for a way of life that society generally agrees should be ended.
A simpler bill could offer basic protections without ceding control of public areas. First, civil infractions and minor crimes that stem from being homeless — public urination and sleeping on sidewalks, for instance — shouldn't result in fines or jail time. Second — and Ammiano got this right — people shouldn't be forced to relieve themselves in the streets. Constructing a safe restroom is not like building a spaceship to Mars. Third, more free storage facilities are needed so streets can be cleaned and homeless people can attend to other business, such as seeking housing and treatment.
There's no point in criminalizing homelessness. It doesn't go away just because police roust sleepers from sidewalks or throw them briefly into jail. But enacting Ammiano's bill of rights is not the answer either. The homeless deserve to be treated with dignity, but what they really need are affordable housing, substance-abuse treatment programs and mental health care. That's more important than a manifesto.