In recent years, a number of communities across the US have passed laws criminalizing the very existence of homeless individuals. In these cities and towns, people living on the street are ticketed for loitering, illegal lodging, panhandling, and other life-sustaining activities for what are commonly called “quality of life” offenses. This criminalization further penalizes homeless people by imposing fines or jail time for the life-sustaining activities that are a natural consequence of being homeless.
(Photo Credit: Dave Kempa)
At the same time, however, the state of California has achieved a few minor successes in undoing the criminalization of homelessness in recent legislative sessions. In 2011, for example, former Assembly member Nathan Fletcher (R-75th) authored AB 1111, prohibiting the garnishment of wages from persons under the age of 25 who have been issued a citation for quality of life offenses if the court obtains information that the person is homeless. However, youth have to eventually pay the fines after 5 years, or once they become permanently housed.
This legislation developed largely out of issues raised in our documentary, Voices from the Street: Homeless Youth Speak Out on State Policy, in which we hear the story of a young man named Sqoll. Sqoll tells us that he stays at a local shelter for homeless youth, except on the nights when he works late and has to sleep at the train station. He has a job at Citibank and decides to open an account in order to help him save for his own apartment. It was the nights when he slept at the train station that he would get ticketed and fined for “illegal camping.” These fines went unpaid as Sqoll struggled to save up enough money to get his own apartment and effectively end his homelessness. But before he could do that, collections found his bank account and seized the $900 in it. The irony is that the penalization he suffered for not having a permanent stable place to live in fact kept him from having a permanent stable place to live.
Advocates at the Children’s Advocacy Institute moved by Sqoll’s plight (and the plight of many others with similar stories) sponsored AB 1111 which was subsequently signed into law by Governor Brown.
Similarly, AB 508, authored by Assembly members Calderon (D-Whittier) and Ammiano (D-San Francisco) delays wage garnishment for homeless veterans ticketed for quality of life offenses for up to 5 years. The bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly 75-0 on Monday, and, while it hasn’t been signed by the Governor yet, the strong bipartisan support seems to indicate an understanding among elected officials that this cycle of criminalization doesn’t really make sense.
The question of the efficacy of quality of life laws remains in many states and for other demographic groups in the homeless population that haven’t yet been exempt from wage garnishment by legislative efforts. While we still have a long way to go, decriminalizing homelessness is cited by youth we interviewed as their number one policy priority, giving us hope that this is a case where “as California goes, so goes the nation.”
- Shahera Hyatt, Project Director