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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

What’s Wrong With The Homeless Bill Of Rights?

Marisa Zocco |
November 11, 2014 | 3:12 p.m. PST


A man without shoes sits on a cardboard box in downtown Long Beach, Calif. (Marisa Zocco / Neon Tommy)
A man without shoes sits on a cardboard box in downtown Long Beach, Calif. (Marisa Zocco / Neon Tommy)
The loud shattering of glass wakes me hours before my alarm goes off. I cannot fall back asleep as the noise continues. Later, when I realize that I am out of coffee, I decide to run to the store and get some. My backyard gate is the nearest exit to the closest convenience store, so I decide to go that route. As I open the gate, I see who woke me. 

It is a homeless man. He peers beyond me, into my yard, asking if he can come in to collect my recycling. 

On the ground, paper has fallen from the slashed trash bags he has searched for recycling. On the concrete, there is a soft pile of human feces surrounded by flies. The garbage bin has a puddle of urine at its wheel. He looks at me, obviously in need. But because allowing him to collect my recycling woud entail letting him inside the gate and supervising him, I tell him "no."

Moments later I arrive at the convenience store. Two more homeless individuals stand outside and ask for my change. When I say "no," one looks desperate. The other looks resentful. I feel cruel and greedy, even though last week, I had five dollars in my account and I spent it on food for my cats.

This is my summer living in Long Beach, Calif. Where I live there, I am surrounded by the homeless in need. A majority have no specific place set aside for them to rest, few places where they can relieve or bathe themselves and virtually no rights in the legal system.

The Homeless Bill of Rights aims to change that in California, Colorado and Oregon by giving the homeless population a number of legal rights. A coalition of 125 social justice groups is working on the bill and plans to find state legislators to sponsor it for the legislative sessions beginning in Jan. 2015. The six most notable rights they pinpointed are: the ability to sleep in any public space, 24-hour access to hygiene facilities, the ability to eat and exchange food in public spaces, the ability to sleep and eat in a car, the right to legal counsel and the right to use the necessity defense when criminally prosecuted. 

The bill comes in response to the criminalization, gentrification and mistreatment of the homeless. In some U.S. cities, for example, feeding homeless individuals could lead to jail time.

All of the rights listed make perfect sense to me. All but one.

The condo that my mother owns was purchased just before the economy made a turn for the worse. At the time, downtown Long Beach had just renewed a plan to keep the city “clean and safe.” Our neighborhood, the realtor said, was an up-and-coming art community located just several blocks from the recovering and improving downtown Long Beach. Her “backyard” is essentially an alleyway.

Although well intentioned, the Homeless Bill of Rights does not differentiate between different types of public spaces. As it is now, the bill would make it legal for the homeless to sleep in any public space. Not only does this include parks and beaches, it also includes alleyways and sidewalks adjacent to residences and businesses

Allowing the homeless to sleep in any public space means that I’m likely to continue having to deal with used condoms littering the sun-dried, urine-scented concrete behind my home. It also means that I might continue to see the man who brought six carts of belongings to our alley this summer, invited five friends and established a small encampment complete with an entire bed set up and used for naps. 

When forced into the streets because of a mental or physical disability, an addiction that one cannot beat, difficult circumstances or a lack of space in a shelter, of course a person should be permitted to sleep somewhere. I see no problem at all with allowing the homeless to sleep in very public places such as parks and beaches or in legally parked vehicles some call home. However, I do find a problem with homeless individuals being permitted to sleep in my back alleyway, on the sidewalk in front of my home, or in the space between the exterior wall of my condo and the hedge separating our property from the neighboring apartments as has happened before. The Homeless Bill of Rights needs to clearly state what kinds of public spaces are appropriate for sleeping, which I believe should not include places directly in front of, behind, or in between residential buildings.

READ MORE: Los Angeles Bans Homeless From Living In Their Cars

Clarifying the bill to limit the homeless to specific public places could allow homeless individuals an increase in protection because more concentrated numbers could deter harassment and hate crimes from outsiders. It would be easier for police to respond to conflicts and it would also keep our communities cleaner. 

For example, the waste left by homeless individuals, if restricted to public parks and courtyards, would be cleaned by park maintenance workers. Although the city of Los Angeles has had to reduce park clean-ups, the most recent data available showed a strategic plan to increasing park maintenance in Long Beach. When coupled with building hygiene centers to meet the hygienic needs of the homeless, identifying specific places in which they could rest would be extremely effective, because it would mean providing a convenience for them near areas where they would definitely be. It would also mean keeping human feces and urine off of public sidewalks and alleys.

Defining which public spaces are suitable for rest and sleep could also go a long way to quell tensions between local residents and the homeless population.

When a homeless population becomes concentrated in my area, I become less understanding because of the waste left, the noise and the amount of belongings that begin to obstruct the narrow alley that leads to my garage. I become resentful of the person who wakes me before sunrise with the sound of shattering glass bottles. The tension causes me to forget that he is a person that could use any help he can get. For others, the tension can escalate noticeably.

If it isn’t the police harassing the homeless to move daily, then it's individuals or business owners. There is a certain strength in numbers and if the homeless establish stronger communities, their needs may be better heard, whereas if dispersed and thinned out, they become virtually invisible. And most importantly, if they seem intrusive to local residents suddenly forced to “deal with” the homeless sleeping directly in front of or behind their homes because it has been legalized, the homeless are likely to bear the brunt of the criticism and frustration.

The homeless deserve a chance to avoid harassment and disapproval and that is what taking preventative measures and defining the parameters of the term “public space” will do.

Contact Contributor Marisa Zocco here and follow her on Twitter here.



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