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.
“The Western Center on Law & Poverty has said the arrest and rehab plan would “take California back into the dark ages of mass institutionalization of people with perceived or real mental illness. Such zero tolerance approaches only exacerbate racial and class disparities through an overly aggressive criminal justice system.”
Homeless people in California convicted of drug crimes or charges such as indecent exposure or defecating in public could be sentenced to treatment instead of jail time under a proposed ballot measure.
Plans for the initiative — which were submitted last week and aren’t yet approved for the November ballot — come as Californians now view homelessness as a top concern in the state, tied with jobs and the economy, according to a recent poll.
…“We know that delivering those services in a forced, institutional setting — which this seems aimed at doing — actually has a very low success rate. It doesn’t result in people stabilizing over the long term,” said Anya Lawler, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which supports the causes of low-income Californians.
California voters could decide next year whether to create new county courts to steer homeless people to mental health and drug addiction treatment programs.
Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat, proposed a ballot measure on Thursday aimed at providing services to people who commit crimes like defecating in public or using drugs.
…“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,” the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a nonprofit legal organization, wrote in a statement.
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.