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OpEd: Anti-Camping Ordinances Violate Eighth Amendment


OpEd: Anti-Camping Ordinances Violate Eighth Amendment

By Mikeal O'Toole 

“Shame on the landlords who don't have to have a reason to make people homeless by evicting them or raising the rents," said homeless advocate Adam Kirshenbaum.  

His thoughts were echoed by another homeless advocate, Dubii Lechuga,  "It’s pretty low when you are putting the blind and disabled on the streets.  Shame on the United States."

On August 6, 2015 under direction of The Attorney General of The United States of America, the office of the civil rights division of The Department of Justice, called the anti-camping ordinances of most U.S. cities and counties a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (see attached).  Given this statement, which follows the principles of the recent decision of the Ninth Appellate Court in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, Sonoma County’s Camp Michela and Homeless Action! are calling on local governments to provide shelter for all who wish to come indoors.

In the Department of Justice statement, attorney Sharon Brett states the following:

1. “In 2014, 42% of homeless individuals slept in unsheltered, public locations — under bridges, in cars, in parks, on the sidewalk, or in abandoned buildings.

2. “If sufficient shelter space is unavailable because a) there are inadequate beds for the entire population, or b) there are restrictions on those beds that disqualify certain groups of homeless individuals (e.g., because of disability access or exceeding maximum stay requirements), then it would be impossible for some homeless individuals to comply with these ordinances.

3. “In those circumstances enforcement of the ordinances amounts to the criminalization of homelessness, in violation of the Eighth Amendment

4. “The United States also has an interest in breaking the cycle of poverty and criminalization.”

Sonoma County is clearly in violation of the DOJ ruling, and more than meets the definition of violating the homeless population's 8th Amendment guarantees of equal protection.  City of Santa Rosa Ordinance 11.22 and Sonoma County Ordinance 19.15 criminalize camping and possession of camping equipment during a time when: there is no space in the shelters; when rental vacancy is at 1-3%; when only 10% of those available take Section 8; when rental prices exceed Section 8 limits; and when landlords can evict for no cause.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has done little more than offer empty promises to both advocates for the homeless and the homeless themselves.  While they express concern and commitment in word (for example bringing forth the idea for SROs in the Chanate area of Santa Rosa), in action they have solicited opportunities for brokering back door deals with the highest bidding developers for the Chanate property.  Meanwhile, the cost of housing in the county is skyrocketing.

The needs of the homeless in Sonoma County are part of a long-standing debate on possible solutions.

Petaluma’s answer to deaths of people in the local creek was to continue chasing the homeless into more and more dangerous situations while providing little to no relief or support.

In the Santa Rosa City Council, the homeless have few allies except Councilwoman Julies Combs.  Ms Combs has shown a true concern and leadership in advocating for those less fortunate in our community and has fought an uphill battle for basic rights of safety to the homeless.  Yet, for the most part, the council is at odds and continues to put much-needed funds in other projects or into solutions that have no real tangible outcomes.

“I am ashamed to live in a community that disregards the safety of any citizen,” said Camp Michela’s Mikael O’Toole. “How in good conscience they sleep knowing others are dying?“

Attorney Brett ended her Statement of Interest with this conclusion: “If the Court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some nights because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, then the Court should also find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.”

The community of people without homes and their allies have asked repeatedly for support and protection and the response has been insufficient. In response, Homeless Action! has provided multiple proposals to facilitate rapid, safe, homeless-governed temporary shelter to the City Council and to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to no avail. We at Homeless Action!'s have had the backing of international law (UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights 1948, Chapter 25).  We now have the backing of US federal law, per the US Department of Justice statement in Bell v. City of Boise, ID.  The time to act is now.