UC Berkeley law school study finds increasing criminalization of homelessness in California

Alvin Wu/Staff
Mark Hawthorne, also known as ‘Hate Man,’ is a well-known Berkeley homeless man who has lived in Berkeley since 1973. A UC Berkeley School of Law study analyzed anti-vagrancy laws in California cities and found that state cities have more such laws than their counterparts in other states.

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A study analyzing anti-vagrancy laws in California was released by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law earlier this month, concluding that such policies are increasingly ostracizing the homeless.

Conducted on behalf of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, the study looked at data from 58 cities across California — including Berkeley — where anti-vagrancy laws have been enacted. Co-authors and graduate students Marina Fisher, Nathaniel Miller and Lindsay Walter and professor Jeffrey Selbin further concluded that California cities have more anti-homeless laws on average than their counterparts in other states.

Miller compared this proliferation of municipal codes to the Jim Crow and anti-Okie laws, adding that these efforts reflect an attempt to “get the undesirables out of the public eye.”

These laws were also alleged to be increasingly enforced on a discriminatory basis, and Miller said “police officers have a ton of discretion.”

“There are laws that prohibit sleeping and resting on the sidewalk,” Fisher said. “(But) you don’t hear about people camping at night to get the latest iPhone getting affected.”

WRAP will be using the group’s findings in its advocacy of a statewide “right-to-rest” act that would extend basic human and civil rights protections to homeless people.

The study categorized four distinct activities in public spaces that these laws seek to criminalize: standing, sitting and resting; sleeping, camping and lodging, including in vehicles; begging and panhandling; and sharing food.

According to the study, there are a total of 12 restrictions on such activities — four each against sitting or resting in public areas, sleeping in public areas and begging or panhandling — in the city’s laws. Unlike 12 other cities in the state, Berkeley does not impose any public restrictions on the sharing of food.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington of District 7, the area covering Southside, said that throughout his time on the council, he’s felt that politicians have tried to ostracize homelessness.

“People feel a lot of compassion, but they also feel like it’s not beautiful out there to have to look at (the homeless),” Worthington said.

He said, however, that he believes it is real-estate developers and not local shop owners who are pushing for such anti-vagrancy laws.

Such efforts came to a forefront with the Berkeley sit-lie ordinance, proposed in November 2012. If passed, the ordinance would have criminalized the act of sitting on a sidewalk in Berkeley’s commercial districts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Genevieve Wilson, co-chair of the city’s Homeless Task Force, said policy efforts to combat the issue of homelessness “tend to get heavy-handed” and stressed the importance of introducing “healthy policy.”

The task force was set to meet Monday night to discuss various issues related to youth homelessness, including the significance of being a LGBTQ youth, provisions for job training and the support for a year-round shelter.

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ishaansriv.