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Statement on proposed state ballot measure to address homelessness in California

An initiative aimed at addressing homelessness in California has been submitted to the California Attorney General for the 2020 ballot, which purports “to get help for those who need it, and thereby also greatly reduce nuisance behavior on our streets.”

The initiative is an embarrassing attempt to make California more visually appealing to those who have no interest or knowledge in addressing the root causes of what is happening to people in our state and country. This proposal would take California back into the dark ages of mass institutionalization of people with perceived or real mental illness. This is not new. California has tried this before, and it didn’t work.

Western Center firmly believes this measure is illegal under a number of civil rights laws. Separate from the legal issues, there are a multitude of problems with the measure. This is not a moderate or compromise proposal, but rather, a return to the now debunked “broken windows” theory Rudy Giuliani used in New York City in the 1990s. Such zero tolerance approaches only exacerbate racial and class disparities through an overly aggressive criminal justice system.

In his letter introducing the initiative, its author, former State Assemblymember Mike Gatto, states, “One side primarily believes the government should be more aggressive in making our streets safer for all people. The other side thinks government should be more lenient, believing that economic hardships are the singular cause.” 

The idea that there are only two sides to this complicated issue is overly simplistic. Homelessness is the result of rapidly increasing income inequality, but it is also the result of years of government mismanagement of resources and funding, as well as institutionalized racism. Voters in Los Angeles just approved significant funding for homeless services, yet countless individuals experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles continue to go without access to services.

Many of the people who currently live on the streets are victims of our foster-care system, or are veterans who served in one of this country’s numerous wars. In those situations, intervention of vital mental health services would have changed the trajectory away from the streets, but because of local and state government’s lack of implementation oversight or commitment to making sure people get the help they need early on, many of those people are left with only the street to turn to.

The State of California has not prioritized providing services or housing for the ~130,000 people experiencing homelessness here. The idea that the state would now have the resources and wherewithal to create and maintain the vast network of institutions this measure would require is absurd.

Gatto’s proposal would require courts to sentence people with substance use disorders or mental illness to maximum criminal sentences. It then allows courts to force people to serve those sentences in locked mental health or drug rehabilitation facilities. Once they have served those sentences, the court has the discretion to keep people locked in those same facilities. Upon completion of the sentence, courts then get to decide whether the individual’s criminal record can be expunged. This will, unquestionably, steer extremely low-income people into the criminal justice system.

The proposition also requires courts to help those without economic means to secure and access housing and other government services, yet it does not provide any funding mechanism to actually increase the services available. 

Institutionalization does not work; all one has to do is look at the massive failure that is America’s prison industrial complex. This measure will NOT end homelessness — it’s not even a workable band-aid. 

There are proven solutions that this initiative ignores. The state can ensure that the millions of dollars being allocated for homeless services actually get to the people who need them, where they need them. There have not been nearly enough good-faith efforts to make sure people receive the services needed to get back on their feet. 

Local and state governments should make sure people have easy access to mental health services when they are wanted and needed. This measure solely blames the victims, but does nothing to hold the systems accountable that put them there in the first place. Mass homelessness is a societal and government failure, and this measure lets government off the hook.

The state must also ensure that safe, stable, and affordable housing is available to everyone. Service delivery is infinitely more effective when people are housed. 

California purports to be a leader for the country and the world, but this measure is more in-line with the regressive policies coming from Washington DC than a state that claims to be on the path toward Governor Newsom’s “California For All.”

If #CaliforniaForAll is to be more than just a pithy hashtag, we absolutely cannot start involuntarily institutionalizing the victims of this country’s out-of-control economic system, failed health care system, centuries of legalized racism and discrimination, and never-ending wars.

If this initiative moves forward, Gatto and his supporters can expect a fight from Western Center and our allies. 

Leveling the field for college athletes

By Jessica Bartholow, Western Center Policy Advocate

We are pleased that The Fair Pay to Play Act, introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner and supported by Western Center, was signed by Governor Newsom this week. The law will allow college athletes to be paid what they are already making (currently for someone else) from their name, image, likeness or athletic reputation.

Western Center supported this legislation for a multitude of reasons, but primarily because of our commitment to economic and racial justice.

In California, more than half of NCAA Division I and Division II colleges have one or more teams with graduation rates below 60 percent. Approximately 40 percent of NCAA Division I and Division II athletes say they don’t have enough time to keep up with academics during the season, and many say athletics prevent them from taking classes. To add insult to injury, California’s Black athletes are over-represented in revenue-producing sports, but suffer the lowest graduation rates.

While the idea that athletes with scholarships are getting the opportunity of a lifetime through their college education has marketing appeal, the fact of the matter is that athletes in the highest profile, most lucrative, and most demanding sports — football and men’s basketball — are the least likely to realize that benefit. According to 2012 federal graduation rate information, only 47 percent of NCAA Division I men’s basketball players and 57 percent of football players graduate within six years.

As student athletes struggle to pay bills and stay in school (many of whom have the additional burden of caring for family members), the NCAA, coaches and other professionals don’t just make a living off of student athletes – they are rolling in the dough.

A 2011 report by the National College Players Association found that among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, 82 percent of athletes who live on campus and 90 percent of athletes who live off campus with “full” athletic scholarships live below the federal poverty level. The myth that college athletes shouldn’t receive payment for their labor because they receive a “full scholarship” or a “free ride” just doesn’t hold water.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, the average annual scholarship shortfall (out of pocket expenses) for each FBS “full” scholarship athlete was $3,285. What’s more, many collegiate athletes participate without a guaranteed scholarship or with no scholarship at all. Scholarships can be revoked for poor performance, or even failure to participate in “voluntary” workouts.

Despite significant out-of-pocket expenses college athletes must secure to stay in college, the time commitment they dedicate to their training, game-days, and travel make it practically impossible for athletes to obtain outside employment to provide for themselves or families. University studies have found that athletes spend 32 to 44 hours per week on their respective sports.

It’s also a myth that college athletes can go into debt as students because they will make enough to pay off the debt once they graduate. Case in point, the NCAA itself has said that less than one percent of women’s college basketball players will make it to the WNBA, and less than two percent of men’s college basketball, football, and soccer players will ever play professionally.

SB 206 does not require schools to pay athletes directly, nor does it allow these payments to affect scholarship offers or eligibility. It does include protections to prevent college athletes from becoming ineligible to play in NCAA competitions. Simply put, the law provides a path for collegiate athletes who already make money for their schools and for the NCAA to be paid some of that money as well – leveling the playing field for those out there on the field.

Lost in translation: Information for Medi-Cal’s beneficiaries

In this op-ed, Western Center health policy advocate Jen Flory and California Pan-Ethnic Health Network’s Kiran Savage-Sangwan explain the need for AB 318, a law awaiting signature by Governor Newsom. If signed into law, the bill will require native language speakers to workshop and approve Medi-Cal managed care plan documents for non-English speaking consumers. Right now, many of the translations patients receive have terrible translations – including large portions that are not translated at all. This bill would address that by ensuring translations, which are required by state law, actually make sense to the people who need them.

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No more waiting

More than two years after an independent audit raised alarm bells about special-ed classes, youth advocacy groups don’t see change coming without legal action.

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The California city where students with disabilities are ‘segregated’

In the Sacramento city school district, nearly half of students with disabilities are separated from peers. A lawsuit claims the district is violating federal law.

…Antionette Dozier, an attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of four legal organizations representing the students, said it is a familiar issue but one that is starkest in the state’s capital.

“This is a statewide problem. However, Sacramento is probably the most egregious in terms of racial segregation and the treatment of black students,” Dozier said.

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The federal government can help with California’s homelessness crisis, but not Trump’s way

By Anya Lawler, Western Center Housing Policy Advocate 

Lately, President Trump has developed a keen interest in California’s homelessness crisis. On his fundraising trip through the state, the president expressed concern for the impact the crisis has on wealthy foreign real estate investors, and on “our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings.”

Notably absent from his concern is the one group that feels the impact of the crisis most—people who struggle to survive every day without a roof over their head. President Trump seems uninterested in humane, compassionate solutions, or ensuring that the federal government is fulfilling its responsibility by providing the resources needed to make sure everyone has safe, stable, affordable housing.

Instead, there are hints that the President is pursuing policies that would further criminalize homelessness and treat human beings struggling with poverty as objects to be warehoused out of view. This continues the Trump administration’s cruel pattern of using a humanitarian crisis as an excuse to remove people’s constitutional freedoms, and then blaming those hit hardest by the crisis for being there in the first place.

None of us should be surprised. The administration has introduced one heartless policy after another that, if implemented, would undoubtedly increase homelessness in California and beyond. A few examples:

  • The proposed DHS Public Charge Rule, which will hamper economic mobility and increase poverty by scaring immigrant families away from using crucial programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which help children and families exit poverty and prevent subsequent harm.
  • The proposed new HUD Mixed Status Rule, which will force families to make an impossible choice between removing family members from their household or losing needed housing assistance.
  • The proposed weakening of the HUD Disparate Impact Rule, which will limit housing opportunity by making it easier to discriminate against members of protected classes. If implemented, the rule will have a direct impact on the homelessness crisis by facilitating discrimination against people experiencing homelessness.
  • The proposed changes to the HUD Equal Access Rule, which flies in the face of proven solutions, and creates unnecessary barriers for accessing shelter, directly contributing to an increase in the rate of unsheltered homelessness.
  • The proposed rule changes to SNAP Time Limit Regulations and SNAP Categorical Eligibility Rules, requiring people to make the impossible choice between food and money for housing.

Rather than pursuing misguided and ineffective efforts that dehumanize people and undermine their ability to succeed, Trump could make far more of an impact by removing these deeply problematic rules from consideration, and instead focusing on proven solutions to prevent and reduce homelessness.

While the causes of California’s homelessness crisis are complex and deeply rooted in racial and economic inequality, one crucial part of the solution is housing people can afford. Homelessness will not end in California without a drastic increase in the supply of housing affordable to households with low incomes. The vast majority of funding for that kind of housing is controlled by the federal government.

Stable affordable housing—both with and without supportive services—ensures that vulnerable families and individuals don’t become homeless, assists the legions who have already lost housing, and allows chronically homeless individuals to receive the services they need to stay off the street. California’s dramatic housing shortage is catastrophic for lower-income people; it will take sustained and substantial funding to turn it around.

There is little chance the state can remedy the affordable housing shortage without a significant increase in federal resources. But rather than address the chronic underfunding of federal housing programs that are critical to serving people with the lowest incomes, the Trump administration is pursuing cuts. Rather than increasing the number of Housing Choice Vouchers available in California so eligible households aren’t stuck on years-long waiting lists, the administration remains focused on cutting HUD’s budget and applying problematic Fair Market Rent calculations that add to the challenge of voucher utilization. Rather than ensuring families are stably housed so that they can focus on improving their economic well-being, he remains focused on tearing families apart and punishing them for using the public assistance intended to prevent the many harms caused by poverty.

More policing is not a solution to homelessness. It is not a crime to be poor. It is not a crime to lack adequate shelter. What is criminal is a country as wealthy as ours, where there are resources to humanely address homelessness and knowledge of how to do so effectively, with a president who is more interested in using the homelessness crisis for political gain. We encourage and invite the president to change course and join us in the pursuit of real solutions.

Lawsuit alleges discrimination against disabled, black students at Sacramento City Unified

A coalition of nonprofit advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court against the Sacramento City Unified School District, alleging that the district discriminates against students with disabilities, especially black students.

Equal Justice Society, Disability Rights California, National Center for Youth Law and Western Center on Law and Poverty filed the suit in the Sacramento-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on behalf of the Black Parallel School Board advocacy group and three students in the district.

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PRESS RELEASE: Western Center and co-counsel sue SCUSD over segregation, mistreatment of students with disabilities, particularly Black students



Sacramento City Unified School District sued over the segregation and mistreatment of students with disabilities, particularly Black students with disabilities

Suit follows years of documented disability and race discrimination by the District


SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A coalition of nonprofit advocacy groups have filed a lawsuit against the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), Superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar, and others on behalf of the Black Parallel School Board and three students in the District. The suit alleges flagrant district-wide discrimination against students with disabilities, especially Black students.


The District has organized its programs in a way that segregates and denies students with disabilities, particularly Black students with disabilities, a meaningful opportunity to be educated side-by-side with their peers in an inclusive environment. Further, the suit alleges the District imposes excessive and exclusionary discipline on students with disabilities for behavior caused by their disabilities. The District disciplines Black students with disabilities more frequently and more harshly instead of providing the services and support they need to thrive.


“SCUSD routinely violates the rights of students with disabilities, particularly Black children with disabilities, by denying them the services and supports they are entitled to,” said Darryl White, Chairperson of the Black Parallel School Board. “Instead, the District tends to unfairly segregate and punish these children.”


In 2017, the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 75 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, released a damning report on the state of special education in the District that validated these long-standing deficiencies. The report was described as a wake-up call by the District, Superintendent, and several School Board members, who vowed to ensure equal opportunities for all children in the District. Sadly, the District did nothing in the year following the report.


In 2018, nonprofit advocacy groups met with Superintendent Aguilar to express their dismay over the District’s continuing failures and demand immediate action. During this meeting, the District promised meaningful reforms and asked for more time to come into compliance. Today, more than two years have passed since the report was published, and the District still has not taken meaningful steps to fix its broken systems and serve students appropriately. 


“The District’s failure to act on well-known systemic deficiencies shows a blatant disregard for the education and futures of its students with disabilities,” said attorney Carly Munson with Disability Rights California. “Our clients are paying the price. In 2018, only 61.9 percent of the District’s seniors with disabilities graduated from high school.  And, of those students, only 4.1 percent were prepared for college or a career according to the District’s own public reports. That’s unconscionable.”


The lawsuit challenges the myriad ways in which the District unlawfully segregates students with disabilities, particularly Black students with disabilities. The District not only places students with disabilities in rooms or schools separated from their peers without disabilities—it also segregates these students through excessive and exclusionary discipline for behavior caused by their disabilities and fails to provide the services, accommodations, and modifications required by law that would allow these students the opportunity to thrive in the general education setting.


SCUSD’s practice of segregating students with disabilities, particularly Black students with disabilities, into restrictive settings outside their neighborhood schools is an irresponsible and expensive choice for a district in an already precarious financial situation.


“Providing an equal education for students with disabilities, including Black students with disabilities, is not only required by law, it is fiscally responsible,” said attorney Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “According to the Council of Great City Schools Report, the District’s practice of segregating students with disabilities outside their neighborhood schools cost the District over $10 million in transportation expenses for the 2015-16 school year.”


SCUSD also promotes a hostile education environment throughout the entire District for students with disabilities, especially Black students with disabilities. The District’s actions and failures create lasting harm, including emotional trauma and feelings of stigmatization and isolation. “The District’s mistreatment of students perpetuates biases and stereotypes rooted in slavery and Jim Crow that create a false narrative of Black students as violent, in order to justify segregation, restraint and exclusion,” said attorney Mona Tawatao of the Equal Justice Society. 

Tragically for the affected students, this systemic mistreatment has earned the District the shameful distinction as the District with “the most egregious suspension district for Black males in the State of California,” according to a 2018 report issued by the California Community College Equity Assessment Lab.

“Our lawsuit asks that the District take several actions,” said attorney Michael Harris of the National Center for Youth Law. “These include reforming its policies, procedures, and practices to fully comply with the law so that they no longer segregate or discriminate against students with disabilities, including Black students with disabilities; implementing a plan to correct violations and create a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment for these students; identifying and holding accountable those staff responsible for violations of the laws; and identifying all students with disabilities and ensuring they receive the services and programs they are entitled to under the law.”


Fourth-grader Konrad has been diagnosed with Autism, dyslexia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Beginning in kindergarten, SCUSD refused to properly assess him or address his disability-related needs. Instead, SCUSD defaulted to exclusionary and discriminatory tactics – first shortening his school days, then suspending him repeatedly for his disability-related behaviors, and finally suggesting that he dis-enroll from school entirely. During the 2018-19 school year alone, Konrad – one of only a few Black students at his school – was formally suspended for 17 days – the equivalent of almost a month of school.

Fifth-grader Stephen has been diagnosed with Autism and Anxiety Disorder. Despite a lifetime in SCUSD, Stephen has never received the mental health services he needs to be successful in school, nor has he had a teacher credentialed to work with students with Autism. Stephen – also one of only a few Black students at his school – has been called racial slurs without consequence and sent home from school on at least 80 occasions for manifestations of his disabilities. Rather than provide lawful and necessary services, SCUSD has repeatedly excluded and punished Stephen.


Eleventh-grader Kurtis also has a history of trauma and known mental health conditions. He aspires to attend college, attend prom, or participate in a Regional Occupational Program. Sadly, Kurtis has been relegated to a nonpublic school that does not provide the same classes or social rites of passage as traditional public high schools. Kurtis fought to attend a public school for ninth grade but was subjected to hostile and discriminatory conditions. He was targeted by peers with homophobic and racial slurs; staff posted a sign outside his classroom proclaiming the students were “Emotionally Disturbed.” Eventually, Kurtis, who is also Black, was unilaterally removed from his high school for behavior that SCUSD explicitly acknowledged was disability-related and sent back to a nonpublic school for students with disabilities. Kurtis is frustrated, bored, and will not be ready to enroll in college or get a job when he graduates next school year.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: If you are a parent of a child with a disability within the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) and are experiencing similar concerns mentioned in this lawsuit, please contact the Disability Rights California confidential intake line at 1-800-776-5746, available 9:00 am – 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday.



For Equal Justice Society:

Mona Tawatao, Legal Director

415-288-8703 direct

[email protected]


For Disability Rights California:

Melody Pomraning, Communications Director


[email protected]


For National Center for Youth Law:

Patty Guinto, Director of Communications

626-512-4974 mobile

[email protected]


For Western Center on Law & Poverty:

Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications


[email protected]


Advocacy groups file suit to block Trump’s new ‘public charge’ immigration rule

Several advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Friday to block the Trump administration’s recently finalized “public charge” rule, which would make it harder for legal immigrants to stay in the country.

The National Immigration Law Center, Western Center on Law and Poverty, National Health Law Program and Asian Americans Advancing Justice filed the complaint in a California federal court.

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