In Los Angeles recently, a Skid Row resident named Efrain sat down on a curb at 4th and Towne streets with a bucket of water and a rag to wash his tired, smelly feet. It was 11:30 p.m. There were no cars on the street and he had moved to where he wouldn't bother anyone.
A policeman drove up and told Efrain to get up. "He told me to get up and if I didn't I will go to jail. He gave a ticket for jaywalking," Efrain said, describing his experience to the LA Community Action Network.
Everyone jaywalks. Almost no one ever gets a ticket. The homeless are singled out for this kind of indignity daily. We need the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, AB 5.
The homeless need legal protection from discrimination. They must not be ticketed or jailed for going about their lives.
Over the long life of this country, Americans have learned that discrimination is wrong.
Public opinion, demonstrations, legislators, courts and presidents have forced the addition of groups to the protected list one-by-one.
It won't be easy to expand the list to include the homeless. While most people have compassion for the homeless, compassion only goes so far.
The same person who donates to a shelter for the homeless or serves a meal at a food kitchen may turn around and support destruction of homeless encampments on public land, though the shelters are full. They may seek a ban on people asking for a handout to eat in front of a café, though the food kitchen has closed.
Time after time, local laws tell the homeless, "You can't do that here. You're a public nuisance."
I understand the impulse to protect urban quality of life against the homeless, but there's a problem with insisting they should know their place. The problem, simply, is that they have no place. Our society has left them nowhere to go.
The essence of AB 5 is the concept that people who are homeless still have a right to a place to go. We cannot ignore recent job loss, mental illness, domestic violence, military post-traumatic stress and just criminalize the behaviors they must carry out each day to survive: eating, sleeping, collecting resources. And cleaning themselves, as Efrain tried to do quietly.
There have been two big criticisms of the bill. First, that it provides no resources to solve the homeless situation. Second, that it will allow anarchy on communities.
I admit that AB 5 won't add any housing immediately, but that doesn't mean I don't support material support. No one has a stronger history on this than I do.
In fact, the groups that represent the homeless came to me because of that history. I listened to them, in hearings up and down California, and worked to make this bill what they asked for. A big piece of what they're asking for is dignity.
The complaint about resources is frustrating, though, because most of the people saying that never lifted their voices for resources until we started talking about giving homeless people something more important: rights. Or, rather, putting into law the rights they're entitled to.
And, it is not an either/or situation. We must, as the bill states, provide housing. Until we can, we must protect the rights of those without housing.
I will do everything I can to make sure that recognizing the humanity and rights of those on the streets does not trample the rights of anyone else.
The whole point of the bill is fairness -- not special privilege for one group.
But we also have to remember that equality is not the same as fairness.
Anatole France slyly noted that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
Enough majestic equality, already. Let's have some fairness. Let's pass AB 5.