By Alex Prieto, Western Center Senior Litigator
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.