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GUEST BLOG: Understanding the impact of criminal administrative fees, and how solutions like SB 144 can move California toward a more equitable future

By Stephanie Campos-Bui

I am a supervising attorney in the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, where we have been researching fines and fees in the justice system since 2013.

In 2017, we worked closely with Senator Mitchell and then-Senator Lara on Senate Bill 190, co-sponsored by Western Center, Youth Justice Coalition, and PolicyLink, among others, which repealed county authority to charge juvenile fees to families of young people in California. One year into implementation of SB 190, all 58 counties have stopped charging juvenile fees.

Given what we learned about juvenile fees, we are now supporting research efforts on fee assessment and collection practices in the criminal (adult) justice system. We have already observed similar findings to those in the juvenile space.

The majority of fees currently charged to people who come into contact with the justice system were authorized during the 1980s and 90s during the War on Drugs, and when the state faced a multi-billion-dollar deficit — the Legislature turned to fine and fee revenue to fill funding holes.

As a result, the existing fee scheme in California is wide-reaching and overly complex. At nearly every point in the criminal legal process, California state law authorizes counties to charge fees. From booking and arrest, representation by a public defender, to court-ordered programs and probation supervision, an individual can face a host of fees, including for collection. Counties also have discretion on the amount charged, so practices vary widely across California. In San Diego County, an adult on probation for five years can be charged almost $12,000, but just miles over in neighboring Imperial County, they would be charged $1,700.

To protect individuals against excessive fees, state law allows, but does not mandate, counties to consider an individual’s income and resources before assessing fees. In many instances, counties do not conduct meaningful ability-to-pay determinations or any determinations at all, leaving individuals with bills they cannot afford and will never pay.

We saw this in the recent Court of Appeals decision, People v. Duenas, in which Western Center was involved on behalf of the defendant, Duenas. In that case, LA County failed to assess whether a single mother, Velia Duenas, could pay the fines and fees imposed against her. In addition to finding the county in violation of due process under the United States and California Constitution, the court recognized that “…imposing unpayable fines on indigent defendants is not only unfair, it serves no rational purpose, fails to further the legislative intent, and may be counterproductive.”

Our ongoing research has shown that the snowball effect of fees can cause significant economic and social harm, while generating low revenue. Fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, and once imposed, can become civil judgments, subjecting individuals to tax intercepts and wage garnishments, which impacts credit scores and limits access to stable employment, housing, education, and public benefits. A survey conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that the average debt for fines and fees was $13,607.

According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, people sometimes turn to underground communities or criminal activity to manage the financial strain of high outstanding fees. Studies have also found that criminal justice debt correlates with a greater likelihood of an individual returning to prison. Those negative outcomes not only harm public safety, but also makes reentry into society much harder.

Unsurprisingly, all of this disproportionately harms low-income people and people of color. Due to over-policing and targeted policing in communities of color, Black and Brown people are punished more frequently and harshly at a variety of discretion points, which leads to higher fee burdens.

Theoretically, fees are intended to help local jurisdictions recoup costs associated with the justice system. Yet counties often recover only a small proportion of what they assess. In Alameda County, the rate of collection on probation supervision fees during 2017 was 4%.  In San Francisco, the collections rate for probation fees in 2016 was 9%.

Such low return rates are not a result of lax collection efforts, but because most system-involved individuals are low-income and cannot afford to pay the fees. For example, in Humboldt County, eighty-four percent of people on probation had a monthly income of less than $1,000.

Additionally, counties spend significant resources trying to assess and collect fees. Records from LA County showed that in fiscal year 2017-18, the County spent $3.9 million to collect $3.4 million in probation fees, resulting in a loss of half a million dollars. Even in counties where collection costs don’t exceed revenue, the resources put toward collection efforts—both within county and to private agencies—do not result in significant returns. And fees are not just costly, they also crowd out spending on positive social goods like healthcare and education. The lack of investment in those areas imposes harm over time, prolongs and exacerbates poverty, and generates costs to families, communities, and society.

The good news is that we have already seen reform across the state. Los Angeles County eliminated its public defender registration fee in 2017 after recognizing the fee’s potential to dissuade people from using their constitutionally-guaranteed right to counsel. San Francisco County eliminated 12 criminal administrative fees and penalties in June 2018, discharging $32 million, and Alameda County ended the assessment and collection of five administrative fees in November 2018, discharging $43 million.

Statewide, SB 190 ended juvenile fee assessments as of January 1, 2018, and 36 of 58 counties opted to go beyond the requirements of the law by also ending collection on over $236 million in outstanding fees, which underscores the commitment counties have to doing right by the populations they serve.

This year, Senate Bill 144, co-sponsored by Western Center, ACLU California, East Bay Community Law Center, PolicyLink, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Youth Justice Coalition, and more, builds on these reform efforts by tackling the array of fees and costs charged to people in the criminal justice system. The bill addresses fees charged for booking and arrest, representation by counsel, diversion and alternative programming, probation, court-ordered programs and classes, drug and alcohol testing, collection fees, and civil assessments. The bill also seeks to end collection on unpaid fees and discharge and vacate outstanding debt.

The use of fines and fees has widened the reach and impact of the justice system to include more people, and has created long-lasting collateral consequences which ultimately serve the racially motivated underpinnings upon which our justice system was built—to control and marginalize black and brown communities. Fees and fines are not a reasonable answer for any of society’s problems — the criminal justice system should be funded by a more stable, predictable, and equitably-generated source of funding. SB 144 is a substantial step in that direction.

 

Western Center and partners hold City of Los Angeles accountable for creating new units for unhoused Angelenos

Western Center, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), and the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), have succeeded in holding the Los Angeles City Council accountable for ensuring that Measure HHH funding is used for the creation of new housing for the city’s growing unhoused population, and that existing low-income renters are not displaced in the process.

Measure HHH was approved by voters in 2016 to address the alarming rise in homelessness in the city, with the intention to build 10,000 new units of supportive housing. Supportive housing provides not only a place for people to live, but also the services they need to maintain stability. However, Western Center and our partners became aware of potential issues regarding the misuse of HHH funds, when it was brought to our attention that the city’s HHH pilot project would allow for the provision of funding for renovations, without the creation of new housing. A few weeks later, we discovered that low-income residents of the Royal Park Hotel, which was once a residential motel, had been kicked out so the owner could sell the property. A developer then acquired the building using $10 million in HHH funding, with the intention of renovating the building to house homeless veterans.

The displacement of the Royal Park Motel tenants was exactly the situation Western Center, LAFLA, and LA CAN were concerned about when we discovered that the city was considering renovation projects for the HHH pilot project. Residential hotels and motels provide a critical source of unsubsidized housing that people who would otherwise be homeless can live in. Like supportive housing, they are a critical piece of the housing puzzle. So, while we are certainly not opposed to rehabilitating old buildings to keep them in habitable condition for existing residents, it is paramount that Measure HHH funding be used explicitly for its original intent – the creation of new units to house the city’s growing population of unhoused individuals. That undertaking must be done without harming vulnerable residents in existing low-income units.

Last month, Western Center submitted a letter with LAFLA and LA CAN alerting the city to our concerns about displacement and the improper use of HHH funds. The story of the Royal Park Motel also appeared in a Los Angeles Times story. After engaging with the city regarding our concerns, the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee adopted language to make the Request for Proposal for the HHH pilot project open for new construction only, with an emphasis on ensuring that low-income individuals are not displaced from existing properties by HHH-funded projects.

This week, the entire council voted to adopt the committee’s amended language. We are heartened that the city responded positively to our interventions and recommendations regarding HHH funds, and we will continue to monitor the distribution of the funds to ensure that the city stays focused on the goal — and the will of voters — to create new units for unhoused Angelenos, while avoiding the potential misstep of displacing vulnerable tenants in the process. We hope other municipalities will take note that it is possible to build new development while protecting existing, vulnerable tenants.

If the U.S. economy is strong, why is the Trump Administration proposing to let people go hungry?

By Jessica Bartholow, Western Center Policy Advocate 

In the Trump Administration’s efforts to scale back the federal safety net, it has proposed new work requirement rules for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) in need of SNAP food assistance – an estimated three million Americans.

For low-income individuals, both those who work and those who don’t or can’t, SNAP offers an essential support for preventing hunger. People looking for work need access to food, because unsurprisingly, hunger undermines employment goals.

At Western Center on Law & Poverty, we advocate for the health and dignity of people in poverty, and we see the proposed ABAWD rule as a hardhearted and misguided manipulation of welfare reform. In an economy as strong as the President claims, allowing people to go hungry is immoral and short-sighted.

Congress created a time limit in the Food Stamp Program, now known as SNAP, in 1996 for unemployed, underemployed, and job-seeking childless adults — deemed ABAWDs. Unless exempt due to disability or pregnancy, ABAWDs are limited to receiving food benefits for three months out of any 36-month period unless they satisfy a 20 hours-per-week work requirement.

In the time since 1996, the USDA approved California’s requests to waive ABAWD time-limits, but that changed last year. The statewide waiver of the ABAWD time limit expired on August 31, 2018, with all counties except San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo receiving area waivers until August 31, 2019. The intent of the original 1996 regulations, and the reason California received waivers in the two decades since, is to protect people from hunger.

Many Californians struggle with unemployment, underemployment, and low-wages, and as a result, are forced to rely on public safety net programs. ABAWDs may be able to find low-paying service jobs, but those jobs are increasingly part-time and lack fair scheduling, making it difficult to guarantee 20 hours a week on a regular basis. That kind of involuntary part-time work has doubled between 2007 and 2012 — 43 percent of part-time workers say they wish they were given more hours.

The proposed ABAWD rule also ignores the fact that numerous ABAWDS are classified as such by a slim margin. Many struggle to hold work because of circumstances beyond their control – undiagnosed mental and physical health barriers, inaccessible job markets, and unstable living conditions.

While the time limit includes protections for people with disabilities, proving that one is unfit for work is difficult. States are not obligated to help individuals find providers to diagnose or treat impairments, which means those with significant illnesses risk being unable to comply with verification rules.

Western Center joined the California Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in calling for the complete repeal of the ABAWD rule. If the rule isn’t repealed, lawmakers should, at minimum, protect long-established waivers that prevent hunger for people in communities impacted by high unemployment and underemployment.

California’s temporary ability to exempt individuals from the ABAWD rule is important, but it’s insufficient. We cannot afford to weaken protections from the ABAWD time limit, especially since there is no evidence that it will result in people working more. Additionally, the proposed rule directly undermines legislative intent; negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill included a consideration for work requirements, but those requirements were left out.

The comment period for the proposed rule came to a close this week — it was extended after Western Center brought attention to errors in the submission system. We submitted comments encouraging the USDA to abandon the proposed rule change for the ABAWD time limit, but ultimately, we are working for the elimination of the time limit altogether to ensure that every American who wants to work can, and that no one goes hungry due to lack of a job.

 

GUEST BLOG: How working with Western Center helped me find my gift for advocacy

Many years ago, around the time Jerry Brown was elected governor the second time, I was introduced to the world of advocacy. Due to my own circumstances, disability rights were very important to me, so I began working with Disability Organizing Group for Initiating Total Equality (DOGFITE), where I was introduced to many great disability advocates.

One of the first issues I worked on after joining the group was SSI (Supplemental Security Income). At that time, I was employed by the State of California’s Employment Development Department. I was earning a decent pay, but I also received SSI payments for months when my health barred me from working enough to earn a living wage. I was 30 years old, and had been on SSI for most of my life.

Regular W-2 employment was something I considered myself unable to do. I was worried that if I was unable to permanently hold a W-2 job, SSI benefits would no longer be available to me if I needed it.  Schwarzenegger’s recession-era cuts to SSI, and my own experiences and anxieties, prompted me to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities, especially in relation to SSI.

Shortly after joining DOGFITE, I was introduced to Mike Herald and other advocates working with the Western Center on Law and Poverty on SSI issues. From the beginning, Western Center aimed to end California’s participation in the cash-out program, which barred SSI recipients from receiving food stamps. Western Center was also working to restore funding for SSI benefits from cuts that were made during the recession. The restoration of funding was the main reason I became involved in advocacy, and I was glad to help the Western Center in any way that I could.

Initially, times were exciting. We seemed to have a lot of support in the Capitol for restoring SSI funds and ending cash-out. However, after a year or two of initial failure, I noticed a couple of recurring narratives that had become deeply entrenched. First, people said they didn’t understand enough about cash-out or how it operated, and that more time was needed to know if ending the program was actually a good thing for SSI recipients. The second narrative was that restoring funding for the state portion of SSI benefits was far too expensive for the state to do.

After seven years of being unable to get the California Legislature to budge on either issue, many advocates became disheartened.  There was even a year when a bill to restore SSI grants passed both houses, only to be vetoed by then Governor Jerry Brown.  Many advocates felt that no change would occur until after Brown’s tenure was over. Fortunately, change finally came last year during his final year in office.

In last year’s budget negotiation process, Governor Brown agreed to end California’s participation in the cash-out program. That change will allow over one million Californians who receive SSI to become eligible for food stamps, helping ease some of the food insecurity they experience living in extreme poverty.

However, the permanent ending of cash-out is a battle that continues in this legislative session. In our fight to end the cash-out program, we also advocated for a “hold harmless” clause, because now that SSI benefits can be counted as income, without the clause, some households could lose some or all of their CalFresh benefits.

The hold harmless clause we advocated for provides a supplemental nutrition benefit so those households don’t lose benefits when SSI recipients gain access to food stamps. Governor Brown included enough funding in his last budget to cover the hold harmless legislation for two years, which was a relief, but our fight this year is to make sure the clause is made permanent.

The end of cash-out in California was the first big win around SSI that I was a part of, and it renewed my personal resolve to see the grant restoration become reality. We are doubling down on our efforts to convince the new administration to fully restore the recession-era cuts to the state’s portion of the SSI grant amounts. This fight is of the utmost importance when it comes to California’s goal to address extreme poverty and to improve the safety net for California’s most vulnerable populations.

This battle is extremely important to me as a lifelong recipient of SSI. Many of my family members and peers use SSI income for necessities like food, warmth, and shelter. I know that SSI grants can mean the difference between life and death for people who are permanently unable to work or sustain gainful employment.

I am proud to say that I have aligned my personal advocacy efforts and this portion of my life’s work for the service of people with disabilities, and I am proud to continue my work with Western Center.

 

On Stephon Clark: The failure of public officials, the power of Black student protest, and the need for systemic reform

Like most people following the Stephon Clark case, I was, sadly, unsurprised by last week’s announcements that neither the Sacramento District Attorney’s office nor the State Attorney General would file criminal charges against the two officers who killed the unarmed 22-year old Black man in his grandmother’s backyard last March.

I watched with horror as District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert delivered her matter-of-fact character assassination of Clark, implying that he was to blame for his own death. I felt sick knowing that Schubert’s words would lead many to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that Clark led a life not worth caring about, or worse, that he somehow deserved to die.

The community’s grief and anger over the agencies’ announcements were compounded by the arrests and detention of over 80 people, including students and faith leaders, who protested the decision in the wealthy neighborhood of East Sacramento. By several first-hand accounts, protesters were trying to return to their cars when police herded the disbanding protesters onto the 51st street overpass with no exit. Journalists from the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Business Journal were among those detained.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn’s evasive and befuddled response to public questioning and criticism of his department’s handling of the protest only deepened the crisis. The D.A.’s decision not to file charges against the protesters is a relief, but in my view, the very least Sacramento leaders should do.

I am a resident of East Sacramento, and I am deeply outraged by Stephon Clark’s senseless death and the failure of leadership, lack of accountability, and re-traumatization of his family and the community that has followed in its wake. But amidst mine and the community’s despair, the movement for true, systemic criminal justice reform presses forward in Sacramento and in California.

Two days after the arrests of the 80 protesters, hundreds of Sacramento area college and high school students walked out of their classrooms and marched to the state Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 392, the California Act to Save Lives. Introduced by Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and co-authored by Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill would change the current standard that allows police officers to use deadly force when they have a “reasonable belief” that they are at risk of harm, even if an alternative course is available. Like similar laws in Seattle and other jurisdictions that have reduced dangerous police interactions without evidence of increased harm to officers, AB 392 would only allow the use of deadly force if “necessary.”

What makes the student protesters so compelling is the personal nature of their cause. As they told the Sacramento Bee, they’re also at risk of being killed by the police unless they fight for changes to the system that led to Clark’s death and the many fatal police shootings before his. The students also smartly seek broad reform, like demanding area school districts end contracts that put police officers (“school resource officers”) on campus. Otherwise, benign behaviors of Black students and other students of color will continue to be criminalized, rather than being addressed through appropriate services and restorative practices.

At Western Center, we work regularly to address the racism embedded in our state and federal legal, health, and economic systems. For example, in the past five years, we stopped local governments from unjustly stripping Californians – many of whom are Black and Latinx – of their driver’s licenses, and we co-sponsored a law that dismantles the state’s money bail system, which keeps people (disproportionately people of color) locked up solely because they can’t afford to pay their way out. Currently, we are co-sponsoring a bill that would require implicit bias training for perinatal health care providers to help save the lives of Black mothers in California, because their risk of dying from pregnancy is five times higher than for other groups in the state.

Taking a page from Ta-Nehesi Coates, I trace what happened to Stephon Clark back to this country’s enslavement of Black people and the institutions that followed after abolition, from Reconstruction to present-day racial profiling and deadly healthcare disparities – all of which are structured around white supremacy. As conservative columnist David Brooks recently expressed in a New York Times opinion piece in support of reparations, the “sin” and “injury” of slavery “…shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.”

I take heart knowing Western Center is part of the ongoing movement that lays bare these injuries and fights for the true systemic change necessary to heal them.

Western Center intervention helps Oakland tenants avoid eviction after U.S. Marshals seize property

Western Center attorney Madeline Howard got the call from an attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza on a Friday. The attorney’s clients had eviction notices from U.S. Marshals informing them that they were to vacate their homes the following week.

 

The tenants had done nothing wrong, but their landlord faces federal charges, so the government seized his assets — including rental properties. Initially, the Marshals had the tenants sign a lease that listed the Marshals as landlord. That lasted for almost a year, until a buyer came along who wanted the property vacated. 

 

After receiving the request for assistance, attorneys at Western Center worked with Centro Legal over the following two weeks to stop eviction proceedings, which ultimately allowed the clients to remain in their homes. It was a whirlwind two weeks that illustrates Western Center’s skill in providing support to community clinics so people receive the protection they need.

 

-U.S. Marshals turned landlords-

 

The situation started back in February 2018, when U.S. Marshals seized landlord Yaniv Gonar’s properties in response to federal charges for running an illegal slot machine ring. For almost a year, the tenants paid rent to the Marshals, and everything continued on as usual until January 2019, when the tenants noticed a piece of paper on their door – it was a forfeiture complaint.

 

It’s clear that the federal government knew there were tenants in Gonar’s properties, because a FBI interview in the criminal complaint determined that the tenants were innocent and knew nothing of Gonar’s business. Nevertheless, the only action the government took to warn the tenants of their impending eviction was to stick an English-only copy of the complaint to the front door of the multi-family homes —  Spanish is the tenants’ primary language. The notices didn’t have the tenants’ names on them, and had very small font — nothing to indicate to the tenants that they needed to do something, or that the notice was for them.

 

Western Center attorney Madeline Howard says the situation was particularly disturbing, because the federal government was treating the tenants the same way other abusive landlords treat people. “One of the big trends we see is new owners emptying out rent-controlled buildings occupied by long term tenants who are often people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected classes, in order to market to young, wealthy, white people. In this case, it was the federal government doing the displacing.”

 

-Western Center steps in-

 

Howard and her colleagues at Western Center dove into mounds of legal research to find out if there was precedent for U.S. Marshals kicking out tenants in this way — especially in a municipality like Oakland with strong tenant protections. “We advised Centro Legal that we should be proactive in signaling our willingness to intervene in the federal forfeiture action, rather than waiting to do something after the tenants were evicted.”

 

Howard and the attorney from Centro Legal called the U.S. Attorney to tell them that they viewed the actions by the U.S. Marshals to be illegal under California law. “It wasn’t clear whether the Marshals were purposefully not following the law, or if they were just not paying attention to the law,” Howard explained.

 

At first, the U.S. Attorney said he was unfamiliar with the situation, but in the days following that phone call, and an hour before Centro Legal was to meet with the tenants, the U.S. Attorney emailed to say the eviction notices would be rescinded. Instead of preparing documents for court, the tenants got the news that they would not be evicted.

 

Western Center’s intervention changed the course of events in this case. The lawyer at Centro Legal was not federally registered, so having attorneys at Western Center as partners who were knowledgeable and prepared to take on federal proceedings made a world of difference in the subsequent interactions with the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshals.

 

Now there is a new owner of the building, and according to Howard, “The tenants are as secure as tenants can be in the current climate.” If there is a problem with the new landlord in the future, the tenants have attorneys, and their new landlords know that.

 

Medical credit cards purport to ease medical cost burdens, but end up creating stress. A new Western Center-sponsored bill could change that

By Jen Flory, Western Center Health Policy Advocate

For many medical consumers, medical credit cards are offered as a way to pay for unexpected medical costs not covered by insurance. Those costs can include trips to the dentist, chiropractors, and veterinarians. Most people know how quickly medical bills can upend a person’s finances, so medical credit cards can seem like a good deal – especially when they are presented with a zero percent introductory rate.

The tricky part about medical credit cards, and what many consumers of the cards misunderstand, is that while they enjoy that zero percent rate for a period of time, when the introductory period is up, they will not only pay a higher rate (which is to be expected), but they will also face deferred interest. Deferred interest provisions allow card issuers to charge interest on the entire original balance, regardless of how much is paid off during the introductory period. That extra interest adds an unexpected burden for the medical consumer who thought they were doing something to help with their medical bills.

For example, if a consumer puts $1,000 on their card and pays off $900 by the end of the introductory period, the new 26.99% interest rate will be charged not on the remaining $100 balance, but on the original $1,000. The consumer will end up paying $269.90 in interest on a $100 balance.

To add insult to injury, many people are encouraged to sign up for medical credit cards while they are awaiting services in treatment rooms. Without the time and means to research alternatives, and in such stressful circumstances, consumers don’t have the opportunity to fully understand what they are signing up for.

Consumers have also reported being signed up for credit cards while sitting in a dental chair about to get treatment, or for dental services that could have been covered by Medi-Cal. Many Medi-Cal recipients are still being charged for dental services in spite of the restoration of dental services for adults with Medi-Cal. In some cases, the needed services are not covered by Medi-Cal; in other cases, Medi-Cal services are available to treat the condition, but patients are upsold more expensive services, which often end up on medical credit cards.

In 2009, AB 171 (Jones) was passed to require dentists to give notices prior to signing a patient up for a credit card to pay for services. In 2014, SB 1256 (Mitchell) expanded those rules to any licensed health care provider. While the law does provide for basic patient notification, few consumers understand how deferred interest provisions work, so they are shocked by high interest charges later added to their account.

To protect medical consumers, Senator Holly Mitchell has introduced SB 639, which would prohibit medical providers from offering products with deferred interest provisions, and would prohibit them from signing patients up for medical credit cards in treatment areas. The bill would also require providers that accept Medi-Cal to explain to patients what Medi-Cal does and does not cover, and it would require language in the notices about medical credit cards to be written at a 6th grade reading level.

Third-party financing may have a place when patients need services they cannot immediately pay for, but more must be done to protect consumers. Products with ‘gotcha’ clauses like deferred interest have no place in a medical practice. Consumers should never feel pressured into applying for medical credit cards, and they should always understand what they are signing up for — especially since their health and wellbeing is on the line.

GUEST POST: I went without meals in college. Now I’m advocating to put an end to student hunger on campus.

By Yesenia Jimenez

I am far too familiar with the realities of growing up poor and hungry in the U.S. When I was young, my family of seven shared one room, and I shared a twin-sized mattress with my older sister until I was in the 8th grade. Going to college felt like a reach, but my mother and high school mentors never stopped believing in me and encouraging me.

I enrolled in Pasadena City College (PCC) after graduating from high school. I traveled for two hours on the Metro to get to school every morning. Some nights, I wouldn’t get home until 11 pm.

My peers and counselors didn’t know that when I was on campus, I regularly skipped meals because I didn’t have enough money to purchase food from the cafeteria. To get through the day, I usually depended on the free food that student clubs and local churches offered students.

I was grateful for community college since my tuition was fully waived, but I struggled to purchase expensive books and materials with financial aid. Back home our family couldn’t afford to pay for Wi-Fi, so staying on campus for long hours felt like my only option. Food seemed like the easiest expense to cut, but doing so caused constant hunger and a feeling of anxiety when I was in the classroom.

When I graduated from PCC, I transferred to UC Davis. I thought transferring would solve many of the financial problems I faced at community college; I thought universities offered meal plans as part of their financial aid packages, but that assumption turned out to be wrong. At UC Davis, I found myself struggling to find enough money to pay for housing and food.

Looking for help back home was not an option — in fact, there were many times I needed to send money home. At my lowest point, during the summer quarter of 2016, I ran into delayed financial aid problems. I was a full-time student with a part-time research job, and I had $20 in my bank account with no secure housing for the next couple of weeks.

I broke down in the middle of campus and called my mother. She cried with me, and I know she felt helpless because all she could send was a couple of extra dollars. That weekend, I met up with my campus fellowship mentor and shared my frustration and anxiety with her. She immediately opened her home to me, expected nothing in return. She was a godsend.

I consider myself fortunate because I know many students don’t have someone to turn to. It shouldn’t take “fortune” for students to stop experiencing hunger. My biggest regret is not looking further into SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) during my college years; it is my hope that students experiencing hunger will have improved access and information about government assistance benefits.

Student hunger on college campuses is a problem that is growing across California, and across the country. As the cost of living increases, wages stagnate, and more first generation students enter college, the need to provide students with support so they don’t experience hunger is crucial. For low-income students, college is a pathway out of generational poverty; the last thing students investing in their future need to worry about is where their next meal will come from.

At the request of lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in January recommending the government take steps to find out how many college students are hungry across the country, and to clarify SNAP student eligibility rules. I traveled to Washington DC to share my experience with lawmakers as they begin to seek solutions to this issue.

I’m glad the issue of student hunger on campus is gaining attention, but it’s critical that immediate solutions are available for students.

Fortunately, advocates like Western Center have been working on this issue for years, and have made progress in implementing solutions. Last year, Western Center was a lead co-sponsor for AB 1894 (Weber) in California, which allows colleges and universities to run CalFresh Restaurant Meals Programs to address student hunger.

The passage of AB 1894 built on the previous four years of policy victories in the area. The first was AB 1930 (Skinner) in 2014, which required the California Department of Social Services to identify which student jobs could be considered training programs, so they could be exempt from the student work rule that prohibited receipt of SNAP benefits.

Additionally, Western Center and a coalition of anti-hunger and student rights advocates called for continued and increased funding for the Hunger Free Campus Initiative in the 2018-19 Budget Act. The request was set at $5 Million for the UC System, $5 Million for the CSU System and $20 Million for Community Colleges. The final Budget Act investments approved $10 Million for Community Colleges, but failed to fully fund both the UC and CSU System Programs, awarding each only $1.5 Million.

Western Center’s continued commitment to fighting for increased funding for this work will have a significant impact for students across the state, and serves as a model for ways other states can address student hunger. Hopefully, with its new Governor and with increased federal interest, California will take the necessary steps to fully fund programs to eradicate student hunger in the state.

Ending hunger on college campuses will require sustainable solutions across financial aid and college systems, targeted toward the most vulnerable students. That means we must invest in students where they are at, and do everything in our power to make sure they have access to the tools and resources they need to nourish their minds and bodies.

I am thankful for the help I received on my quest for higher education. Now I want to make sure every student has the opportunity to invest in their education without the debilitating burden of hunger.

 

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Yesenia is currently an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute working on Strategies to Reduce Student Hunger on Mass Campuses. Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Yesenia moved into the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects in Boyle Heights, CA, where her pursuit for social justice grew. While at Western Center, her work on school lunch shaming led to the successful passage of Senate Bill 250 and district-wide policy change within Los Angeles Unified School District. Her work serves as a framework for advocates seeking legislation against school lunch shaming.

 

 

Western Center housing legislation paves the way for state lawsuit against the City of Huntington Beach

By the Western Center on Law & Poverty Housing Team

Last week, the Newsom Administration announced legal action against the City of Huntington Beach on the claim that the city intentionally violated state housing law. The city has long ignored its obligation to meaningfully plan for and provide housing access to its residents across all income levels, even when the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) offered resources and help to get the city into compliance. Now, under authority provided by a Western Center co-sponsored bill, the California Attorney General is poised to move forward with litigation against the city to enforce the law.

Under California law, all cities and counties must take certain actions to accommodate housing at all income levels to serve existing and future residents. While the law provides flexibility, it does not allow cities and counties to close their borders to growth, or to accommodate only wealthy residents. To ensure that cities and counties are meeting this obligation, they must adopt a general plan, which includes a housing element that analyzes the community’s housing needs and outlines concrete actions—including zoning—to ensure needed housing can be produced.

Part of that commitment includes zoning to allow the development of dense multifamily housing, which is crucial to producing units affordable to lower-income households. Communities must also show how they plan to undo the legacy of racially exclusionary policies like redlining by taking actions to reduce racial and economic segregation. Unfortunately, jurisdictions throughout California have not always complied with the law, which is, in part, how California ended up with a severe shortage of housing relative to its population — a shortage that is most acute at the lower income levels.

To address local jurisdictions’ noncompliance with the state’s planning requirements, Western Center, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and the California Housing Consortium co-sponsored AB 72 (2017), a bill authored by Asm. Miguel Santiago. Under the new law, HCD must notify local governments when they are violating Housing Element Law and other important housing laws and give the city or county time to address the violation. If the jurisdiction declines to take corrective action, HCD can refer the case to the Attorney General for enforcement. The purpose of the law is to ensure that communities not only adopt housing elements that comply with the law, but also that they carry out commitments made in their housing elements.

Historically, the state has rarely enforced its own housing and land use laws against cities seeking to exclude lower-income residents. This lack of enforcement, combined with the actions of Huntington Beach and like-minded cities, inspired Western Center and its partners to advocate for AB 72.

Huntington Beach has a long history of restricting new housing development in its city limits, particularly the higher-density development that is needed to produce affordable units. In spite of warnings from HCD, the city has continued to restrict development opportunities, exacerbating our state’s housing crisis and leaving the community far short of meeting its fair share obligations under Housing Element Law. Huntington Beach is one of many cities that prompted our coalition to advocate for AB 72, so it is unsurprising that it is the first to be sued by the Attorney General for lack of compliance.

We are pleased to see Governor Newsom taking the state’s housing challenges seriously. In a press release from his office, he recognized the importance of addressing our urgent housing crisis. “The huge housing costs and sky-high rents are eroding quality of life for families across this state. California’s housing crisis is an existential threat to our state’s future and demands an urgent and comprehensive response.”

The state’s housing crisis is in fact an existential threat to our state’s stability and well-being. A comprehensive response requires housing for the 1.5 million lowest income households that currently lack affordable housing, and a commitment to ensuring that no person is forced to sleep on the street.

By eliminating the housing shortage for the poorest Californians, we improve the quality of life for all Californians. We are pleased to see Governor Newsom putting AB 72 to use so early in his tenure, because the state will only solve the housing crisis if Huntington Beach and like-minded cities are held accountable. We hope the Governor’s action prompts other municipalities to take their housing obligations seriously.

Change may be scary for homeowners living in places like Huntington Beach who would prefer for things to remain the same, but with the largest population in the U.S. and the world’s 5th largest economy, California cannot afford to remain stagnant. Nothing is scarier than the prospect of losing access to housing, and that is exactly what Californians across the state are facing as housing becomes more scarce. For the people Western Center serves, that access is already largely non-existent.

The enforcement of AB 72 will help ensure that municipalities develop in ways that consider all residents in their jurisdictions. Our state is too big to be exclusionary — we are thrilled that Governor Newsom recognizes that reality, and is willing to utilize the law to take irresponsible local governments to task.

 

 

 

Governor Newsom’s proposed budget will reduce poverty, but Supplemental Security Income recipients are still ignored

By Mike Herald, Director of Policy Advocacy

Governor Newsom’s budget was released last week, and it is receiving well-deserved praise (including from Western Center) as an ambitious step toward creating a more equal California, and addressing the state’s poverty crisis. With bold proposals for ending childhood poverty, expanding health care access to young adults regardless of immigration status, and creating opportunities for families with children to get out of the cycle of poverty, Governor Newsom is sending a clear signal about his intention to take the state’s poverty issues seriously.

Western Center is thrilled with the Governor’s focus on ending poverty, and we look forward to the positive benefits it will have for millions of Californians, but there is one group that the new budget leaves out – Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients.

For many years, Western Center and others have pushed the Legislature and Governor to increase grants to the SSI program. All 1.3 million SSI recipients are living with disabilities, or are too old to work. With few exceptions, they are unable to earn a living and must rely on the grant they get each month to pay their rent, food and utilities.

The Governor’s new budget does not include an increase for the State Supplemental Payment (SSP), which was reduced a decade ago by the Schwarzenegger Administration to the federal minimum of $156 a month. This $77 a month reduction has never been restored, and has dropped one million SSI recipients into poverty as a result.

It has been a rough road for SSI recipients since cuts were made in 2009. In the time since, more than $11 billion has been taken from SSI recipients and put toward building the Rainy Day fund and budget surplus. The state’s budget “success” has been built on the backs of SSI recipients.

A few years ago, a coalition of groups came together to see if we could turn the situation around. The coalition included participants from a wide swath of disability, nutrition, and legal advocacy organizations, senior organizations, and SSI recipients. The coalition, known as Californians for SSI (CA4SSI), turned out for lobby days, budget hearings and committee hearings. Meetings were held repeatedly with the Governor’s office, the Pro Tem office, the Speaker’s office, and the Department of Finance urging them to restore funding for people depending on SSI to survive.

From the beginning, many SSI recipients were involved in every aspect of the coalition’s work — from building the website, to choosing messaging, to raising money — but one recipient in particular stands out, we will call him Mitch. Mitch never missed a call, never missed a hearing, and always spoke from his heart. He told powerful people even more powerful stories about SSI recipients living in their cars who had to depend on food banks every month to eat.

The coalition saw a sliver of success with a cost of living increase of $5 a month, but in spite of our combined efforts, the grants did not get restored. Frustrations began to mount inside the coalition, and many recipients felt that the coalition needed a new strategy.

We continued to lobby the state for an increase in SSI payments, and Mitch continued to show up faithfully, until one lobby day, when it became clear that he had reached a breaking point. Mitch became upset because he didn’t like the way that particular event was organized, and he yelled at staff and subsequently took to social media to criticize the campaign, which he called a failure. Despite efforts to mediate the situation, Mitch remains estranged from the coalition.

Unfortunately, Mitch was not the only SSI recipient who lost hope in our effort to advocate for SSI – many people became frustrated that we were not reaching our goal. The biggest frustration was that despite all of the hearings, meetings, and lobbying, we hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do.

People lost hope – it’s what happens when the least powerful in a society go up against the most powerful and get shut down. Mitch’s reaction was extreme compared to others, but the ache of his disappointment is shared by many SSI recipients and advocates working on the issue.

While this episode was playing out, CA4SSI embarked on a new strategy of repealing a 40-year-old state rule that barred SSI recipients from receiving SNAP food stamp benefits. With strong support from both houses of the Legislature and from Governor Brown, the rule was repealed in 2018. The state is currently working to implement the change, and by this summer, hundreds of thousands of SSI recipients will get SNAP.

This should be a happy ending, but in reality, SSI recipients have still not achieved the justice they deserve. The state is still taking $1 billion a year from SSI recipients, and while getting SNAP is good, less than half of the recipients will be eligible for food assistance. And as Mitch used to testify, there are SSI recipients who are homeless or living in cars because SSI is not enough to pay rent. For SSI recipients who receive SNAP, it won’t prevent homelessness, because SNAP can’t pay the rent.

So here we are, after the release of the boldest and most progressive budget our state has ever seen, while SSI recipients look down the barrel of year 12 of reduced grants. As we proceed into the budget revision process and head into spring, the question remains, will anything change for struggling SSI recipients, or will they once again be ignored?