On Friday the 27th of February, the California state lawmaker introduced the Right to Rest Act to the State Senate.
This means that California is one of four US states considering proposals aimed at ending the criminalization of homelessness. If this or other proposals, colloquially known as the ‘Homeless Bill of Rights’, go through then those who are homeless would have the right to use public space without discrimination. This includes the right to rest in public, protect yourself from the elements in public, eat in public and occupy a parked car in public. Anyone who had their rights violated would be authorized to defend themselves through civil action.
According to a study by the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law, California has over 500 anti-homelessness laws in different cities. The study also concludes that enforcement of these laws is based increasingly on status, rather than behaviour. Even as arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct have gone down in recent years, arrests for vagrancy have gone up. Finally, the study states that the enforcement of anti-homelessness laws harms everyone. It prevents people who are homeless from accessing social support, health care, affordable housing and employment opportunities, as well as ignoring their constitutional rights. Enforcement of these laws is also expensive, drawing resources away from efforts that would effectively and humanely reduce or prevent homelessness.
For California, the Right to Rest Act would be a step in the right direction. It would give people who are homeless in California legal defense against arrests that are discriminatory, since they would be able to use the ‘necessity defense’ against vagrancy laws. This would mean that less money would go into prosecuting those who are homeless and more money could be spent on homelessness services to help people to regain their place in society.
The legislation was introduced California as a result of action by a coalition of over 125 social justice groups, who have compiled over 1,300 interviews with people who are homeless, in order to identify the priority areas of concern. The other states that have considered similar legislature are Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois. We can all hope that the legislation is passed, so that the human rights of people without homes are acknowledged above vagrancy and other anti-homelessness laws. We can also hope that other states follow the same path.
The rights that are being fought for in America are ones that we all take for granted all the time. The right to rest, rather than be moved along throughout the night. The right to eat, without having to hide away in a dark corner or alleyway to avoid being harassed. The right to shelter from rain, snow or wind, instead of having the roof over your head pulled down. The only difference is that these rights are being fought for people who aren’t fortunate enough to have a home. We can’t take justice for granted until everyone is seen as equal under the law, regardless of how fortunate they are.