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Western Center Roundup – January 2022

Welcome to Western Center’s first newsletter of 2022! The new year also brings a fresh look for our monthly newsletter. Welcome to the roundup!


From North to South, Two Suits Settled 

Two lawsuits settled since our last newsletter: Warren v. City of Chico and Banda v. County of San Bernardino. 
Legal Services of Northern California and Western Center brought the case in Warren v. City of Chico last year to challenge ordinances criminalizing homelessness in Chico. Now under the settlement, the city must build individual pallet shelters for people experiencing homelessness, and is prohibited from issuing citations and arrests for people who live outside when shelter is unavailable. Read more about the case and settlement here.

In December, Western Center, Inland Counties Legal Services, and Public Interest Law Project settled our case against the County of San Bernardino, resulting in several changes to the county’s General Relief program to help more people in extreme poverty access vital financial assistance. General Relief is the program administered by California counties that provides cash assistance to adults who don’t have enough resources or income to meet their basic needs. Our case prompted the county to make substantial changes to its General Relief process, making General Relief easier to access and maintain moving forward. The biggest change is the dollar increase in assistance. Read more about the case and settlement here.


Let the Budget Process Begin

Governor Newsom released his 2022-23 California budget proposal in mid-January – revealing yet another dramatic surplus for the State of California due to rapidly increasing wealth among the state’s top earners. Western Center’s analysis of the governor’s budget proposal outlines its potential impact on Californians — from the positive, like the proposal to expand Medi-Cal eligibility to those currently excluded due to immigration status, to challenges, like the need for more state-funded rental assistance than was included in the governor’s proposal. Read our analysis here.

Despite the large surplus and number of proposed initiatives, the proposal shows reluctance to invest in the state’s ongoing needs. Leading up to the budget’s May Revision, Western Center will advocate for the legislature to review the governor’s proposal with more of an eye toward meeting the short- and long-term needs of all Californians. To learn more about Western Center’s 2022-23 budget priorities and advocacy, you can view the recording of this month’s Meet the Advocate conversation with our Director of Policy Advocacy, Mike Herald.


February Reads    

If you’re looking for an informative read or three heading into February, our blog has you covered!

  • Western Center’s Executive Director Crystal D. Crawford and Manal J. Aboelata, Deputy Executive Director at Prevention Institute and author of a new book, Healing Neighborhoods, reflect on the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and what it could mean for ensuring all Americans the right to live in a healthy neighborhood. Read here.
  • Abraham Zavala, Western Center’s Outreach and Advocacy Associate, wrote an eye-opening post about the struggles facing long-term tenants at City Center Motel in Long Beach, and how the untimely death of one tenant spurred others to mobilize and organize. Read here.
  • Western Center’s senior policy advocate Jen Flory and senior attorney Helen Tran co-wrote a post outlining new patient protections for hospital billing available this year. Read here.

Following lawsuit, SB County makes it easier for those in extreme poverty to access cash aid

“The dollar increase is significant for people who rely on this program, as is the increased ease of access,” said Richard Rothschild, director of litigation at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “$500 can make a big difference for someone experiencing homelessness. It’s a stepping stone for finding housing, getting a job and becoming an integrated member of the community.”

https://iecn.com/following-lawsuit-sb-county-makes-it-easier-for-those-in-extreme-poverty-to-access-cash-aid/

PRESS RELEASE: After Lawsuit, San Bernardino County Removes Barriers to Cash Aid for Residents in Extreme Poverty

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The county has agreed to implement several policy changes to make General Relief easier to access in the settlement of a 2019 lawsuit

SAN BERNARDINO – A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit filed against San Bernardino County, resulting in several changes to the county’s General Relief program that will help more people in extreme poverty access vital financial assistance. General Relief is the program administered by California counties that provides cash assistance to adults who do not have any other income or resources to meet their basic needs.

The suit was filed on behalf of two county residents in December 2019 by Inland Counties Legal Services, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and Public Interest Law Project. At the time, San Bernardino County had an extremely low number of General Relief recipients. Data from July 2018 through April 2019 shows the County denied 2057 out of 2245 applicants — nearly 92% of applicants.

The evidence indicated that the numbers were the result of the County’s unlawful restrictions on GR eligibility and onerous application process. The County also paid a much lower monthly grant than required by statute—a single individual could only receive a maximum of $280 per month. Among other restrictions, the County terminated benefits to homeless recipients who could not find housing within the first 30 days of getting benefits.

With the changes made by the County, Inland Counties Legal Services attorney Anthony Kim expects more residents will secure General Relief benefits and have an easier time maintaining them going forward.

“The people who need general assistance are often homeless and disenfranchised to the point where receiving any help is difficult, so these changes to the program are huge. The less hoops residents need to jump through, the easier it will be for them to get the assistance they need and are legally entitled to,” Kim said.

One of the biggest changes from the suit is the dollar increase in assistance, including annual increases over the next five years. The County has already increased the grant amount to $332 per month for an individual, and it will be $504 beginning in 2026.

The County’s Transitional Assistance Department, which administers the program, implemented several other significant changes in response to the lawsuit. They eliminated the requirement for applicants to attend an in-person orientation before applying for General Relief, and they began accepting applications online and via mail or drop box. They also eliminated the former policy of terminating General Relief to homeless recipients who did not secure housing within their first 30 days of receiving assistance.

“The dollar increase is significant for people who rely on this program, as is the increased ease of access,” said Richard Rothschild, Director of Litigation at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “$500  can make a big difference for someone experiencing homelessness. It’s a stepping stone for finding housing, getting a job, and becoming an integrated member of the community.

Other changes to the program include: paying full General Relief benefits amount to all eligible recipients regardless of housing status; paying General Relief benefits back to the date the person first applied; reducing the recertification requirements for people who receive General Relief; increasing the resource limits for cars and other vehicles, especially for people who use their vehicles for shelter; providing a pre-termination notice and an opportunity to appeal before ending someone’s benefits; and decreasing job search requirements for “employable” recipients from 20 contacts a week to 10.

“This is an incredible victory for people in San Bernardino County,” said Melissa A. Morris, Staff Attorney at Public Interest Law Project. “These systemic changes to the County’s General Relief program will potentially benefit thousands of low-income people throughout San Bernardino County, and we appreciate the County’s willingness to work with us to make these improvements.”

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The City of San Clemente backed away from an inhumane homeless ordinance, but it’s the tip of the iceberg in California

Last month, after pressure from a case filed by Western Center and our partners, Emergency Shelter Coalition v. City of San Clemente, San Clemente passed an emergency repeal of a deeply inhumane ordinance targeting people experiencing homelessness. The ordinance would have forced anyone without a place to sleep to camp at a storage lot next to a waste treatment plant. The City made the repeal permanent this week.

The ordinance was the latest in a series passed by San Clemente targeting the City’s growing homeless population. Sadly, the City’s actions reflect an approach to homelessness that is common in California, aimed at pushing the problem out of public view rather than addressing it in a meaningful way.

In 2018, San Clemente enacted an ordinance similar to those adopted by many California cities, which criminalized camping by those experiencing homelessness. The City was forced to amend the law in response to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Martin v. Boise, which said it is unconstitutional to punish someone for sleeping outdoors on public land when alternative shelter is unavailable.

But the City’s amendment did not mark a change in attitude. After Martin, San Clemente still clung to its same shortsighted approach to homelessness, and remained focused on citing and arresting people for living on the street, sleeping in public, and other unavoidable offenses. The ordinance challenged in our Emergency Shelter Coalition case was a product of that approach.

At the City Council meeting where San Clemente adopted the ordinance, Emergency Shelter Coalition, the plaintiff in the case, offered the City an alternative: a financial donation to fund an indoor homeless shelter, and land for a location. San Clemente opted instead to force its homeless population to camp at the site near the waste treatment plant, which the City previously rejected as the location for an animal shelter due to safety concerns. This choice shows that the City wasn’t interested in providing adequate shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

The City’s decision to repeal the ordinance came only after sustained pressure from our case — a victory against the criminalization of homelessness. But the notion that criminal enforcement is a solution to homelessness continues to attract politicians and administrators peddling quick fixes.

Exhibit A: a proposed 2020 state ballot initiative by former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, which takes the debunked idea that California can arrest its way out of a homeless crisis to disturbing extremes. The initiative requires law enforcement officers to set aside other priorities to make mandatory arrests for certain offenses, mostly minor nuisance violations. It then requires judges to impose the maximum sentence on anyone found to have a mental health or drug addiction issue. Judges would also be authorized to order that sentences be served in locked mental health and drug treatment facilities.

If enacted, the initiative will result in the mass institutionalization of people deemed mentally unwell at the discretion of police and judges.

Gatto claims the initiative will connect people to financial and housing assistance, but this is only window dressing – the measure provides no funding for housing or homeless services. The only financial assistance it refers to is General Relief, an existing program that already provides far less aid than necessary to obtain housing and meet basic needs. In Los Angeles County, for example, the maximum General Relief payment is $221.00 per month.

Such superficial gestures should not distract from what the initiative really is: a destructive non-solution that will trample the rights of people with mental health disabilities. It is an example of the “out of sight, out of mind” approach to homelessness at its worst.

Moreover, this approach also perpetuates wider systemic inequities, both historic and current. In a country and state that continues to struggle with racialized policing practices, it makes no sense to impose mandatory arrests and maximum sentences on an already marginalized population that is disproportionately Black.

Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to solve a long-term crisis resulting from entrenched inequities in housing access, economic opportunity, the criminal justice system, and medical and mental health services. But it does allow cities to push the visual evidence of the issue temporarily out of sight. Cities too often assert that some people experiencing homelessness will eventually move to other cities when faced with the constant threat of arrest, which allows them to treat homelessness as someone else’s problem.

Harmful policies like San Clemente’s now-repealed ordinance and Gatto’s proposed ballot measure move the state backwards when we should be investing in real solutions, like increased funding for deeply affordable housing and significant increases in General Relief grants. Western Center will continue to advocate for sustainable state and local policies that actually work, and we will fight those seeking to expand the criminalization of homelessness in court.

 

Riverside County increases number of people receiving general relief subsidies by 3,900% in past year

In the past year, Riverside County increased the number of people to whom it provided “general relief” by 3,900% in response to a lawsuit filed by three California social justice law firms which argued the county’s system made the cash assistance program hard to access for indigent individuals, particularly those who were homeless.

The $3 million county-funded, state-mandated general relief program (also called general assistance) provides temporary financial assistance to adults who don’t have access to other assistance programs such as Social Security income, disability assistance, unemployment benefits or other programs. The program generally helps single adults who don’t fit into the programs that come with age, disability or family qualifiers.

…“In some cases, folks were telling us they would go to the social services office to apply and would be told by workers that if you are homeless you aren’t even eligible,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior attorney from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Read More

PRESS RELEASE: With legal settlement, Riverside County now providing General Assistance to over 4,000 individuals in deep poverty, up from 100 in 2018

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Changes to county policy means thousands in Riverside County, particularly adults experiencing homelessness, can now access vital cash benefits

 

Riverside, CA – A settlement has been reached with Riverside County in Isabel Bojorquez, et al. v. County of Riverside, et al., a lawsuit filed on behalf of three General Assistance (GA) recipients to change policies under the county’s GA program. GA is the program of last resort for the poorest Californians – indigent residents who cannot qualify for other benefit programs. 

 

Western Center on Law & Poverty, Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc., and the Public Interest Law Project are the attorneys on the case.

 

Before the case began, roughly 100 people in Riverside County received GA each month. In the time since litigation began in 2018, that number has increased to more than 4,000 people each month, according to the latest available data.

 

The settlement includes an agreement by the county to end its prior illegal policy limiting homeless recipients to six months of housing assistance payments. The county will now only end housing assistance payments where the recipient declines an offer of available shelter without a good reason. 

 

“People experiencing the kind of poverty that qualifies them for General Assistance usually have little to no resources. General Assistance can be vital for a person’s ability to rent a room or find a motel where they can sleep,” said Alex Prieto, an attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty.

 

Riverside County will issue guidance to workers and train them on the county’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. The county will also review previous applications for a limited period and issue retroactive payments to anyone denied under the former policy.

 

“I’m hopeful that this outcome in Riverside will prompt other counties to revisit their policies and approach to General Assistance as well,” said attorney Anthony Kim of Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. 

 

These changes come after others the county made in response to litigation pressure, and across two previous mediation sessions. To date, the county has raised GA grant amounts, raised resource limits, simplified application processes, issued guidance regarding due process, and ended a policy that required employable recipients to re-apply for benefits every month, even though their circumstances were unchanged.

 

“Increasing General Assistance across the board in California counties, and simplifying the process for people to access it, could provide a significant stop-gap in our state’s battle against homelessness and increasing poverty,” said Lauren Hansen, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Project. “This is a good example of the kinds of things counties can do, ideally without the need for litigation, to curb deep poverty in their jurisdictions.”

 

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About Western Center on Law & Poverty

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

 

About Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. (ICLS)

Inland Counties Legal Services, Inc. (“ICLS”) is the largest non-profit legal aid organization in the Inland Empire with offices located in Riverside, Indio, San Bernardino, Victorville and Rancho Cucamonga.  ICLS is dedicated to securing justice and equality for low-income people in the communities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, through litigation, counsel, advice, and community education.

 

About the Public Interest Law Project (PILP)

Since 1996, the Public Interest Law Project (PILP) has provided crucial litigation and advocacy support to local legal services and public interest law programs throughout California. The primary purposes of PILP are to assist local legal services programs in rendering legal services to lower income persons who are financially unable to afford legal assistance, and to provide technical assistance, training, research and litigation support to public interest law programs and community based organizations on law and policy issues related to housing and community development, public benefits, health, education, welfare, and civil, consumer and economic rights.