A BILL OF RIGHTS FOR THE HOMELESS: If a homeless person in Gainesville, Florida, is caught receiving money from a motorist, both parties can be fined up to $500. In Atlanta, Georgia, it’s illegal to ask for money within fifteen feet of a building entrance. Cities across the country prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks as well as camping in public spaces, and loitering and jaywalking laws are often more aggressively enforced against the homeless. Advocates say it amounts to an intimidation strategy, designed to purge the homeless from neighborhoods being groomed for gentrification.
In response, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently introduced the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, which would enshrine the right to “life-sustaining” activities such as resting in public spaces as well as panhandling, provided it’s not done aggressively. The bill articulates the right to housing, clean water and bathrooms and would allow people to sleep in legally parked cars; it would also guarantee the homeless legal counsel. The point, Ammiano explains, is “to recognize the rights of a population in very difficult circumstances without trampling on the rights of everyone else.”
“It’s an interesting concept. What took so long?” says Marvin, 57, who makes his living beating tourists at chess on San Francisco’s Market Street. Marvin says police have threatened to confiscate his chess set, claiming he’s violating the city’s “sit-lie” ordinance, and adds that he has seen officers seize homeless people’s bags. He says he’s been told the orders to “clean up Market Street” come from “up top.”
The Western Regional Advocacy Project, which helped write Ammiano’s bill, has found that a majority of homeless people report being targeted by police for sitting, sleeping or just hanging out. Thirty-one percent of those interviewed say they’ve been incarcerated, while only 5 percent say they have been referred to a social program. A criminal record can disqualify people from housing aid that could help get them off the street. “You can arrest one person,” says WRAP’s organizing director, Paul Boden. “But at the rate people are falling into homelessness, someone else will be there sooner or later.” TANA GANEVA
REINING IN STOP-AND-FRISK: For the first time under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a federal judge has struck down a key component of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program. In a January 8 ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlin sided with nine Bronx residents, all of whom had been questioned—and in some cases arrested— for being outside buildings enrolled in the so-called Trespass Affidavit Program, more commonly known as “Clean Halls.”
Under the program, the owners of more than 3,000 private residential buildings in the Bronx give the NYPD a roster of tenants and permit officers to patrol their halls. Residents say what began as an anti-drug initiative has become a pretext for officers to stop and search people simply trying to visit loved ones, run errands or generally go about their lives. Scheindlin’s order directs the NYPD to immediately “cease performing trespass stops” outside Clean Halls buildings.