Professor Jeff Selbin, Lindsay Walter ’16, Nathaniel Miller ’16, and public policy student Marina Fisher.
By Andrew Cohen
A new report by Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC) reveals a major rise in the criminalization of homeless people in California. The report details how more and more city ordinances—and the overzealous enforcement of them—are targeting this population.
Berkeley Law students Lindsay Walter ’16 and Nathaniel Miller ’16 and Goldman School of Public Policy student Marina Fisher researched and wrote the report, supervised by clinical law professor and PAC Director Jeffrey Selbin. The students analyzed municipal codes in 58 cities that collectively account for 75 percent of California’s homeless population; studied enforcement practices by gathering public records—which often required creative strategies; and interviewed key stakeholders.
The students compared their findings to data from 166 cities outside California gathered by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. They found that California cities have more anti-homeless laws on average than cities in other states, and that local authorities deploy a wide range of punitive enforcement strategies.
In every California city studied, local laws are used to cite, arrest, and jail homeless people for daytime activities like standing, sitting, or resting in public places. In all but one city, such laws ban nighttime activities like sleeping, camping, or lodging in public places.
“It’s rewarding to contribute empirical research that strongly suggests we need statewide reform on these issues by showing that homeless people aren’t being treated well in California compared to the rest of the country,” Walter said. “Our state legislature has the power to fill that gap.”
Selbin’s team prepared the report for the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), an umbrella organization of more than 120 homeless rights groups, which is working to present a “Right to Rest” bill to the state legislature. The bill that would serve as a key first step to decriminalizing homelessness in California, and encourage local governments to redirect enforcement resources to more humane and effective solutions.
“This is a major contribution to our understanding of how California cities have responded to homeless people,” said Paul Boden, WRAP’s executive director. “It confirms our own street outreach surveys of hundreds of homeless people, who are increasingly harassed and punished for their mere presence in public.”
Selbin and Boden co-wrote an op-ed on the growing problem—and their new report—that appeared in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.
Digging up data
The students examined city codes and documented ordinances relating to four main categories: sleeping, sitting, food-sharing, and panhandling.
“I was shocked to see how many ordinances are on the books at the municipal level, and just how far they extend,” Miller said. “The lack of a home is not just cause for being criminalized.”
There is also no centralized mechanism of data aggregation on enforcement practices, and many cities fail to track them accurately. The students often had to ask police or public defenders to clarify certain information, and many city agencies were unwilling to provide them with requested data.
“It became clear that cities have enormous discretion in enforcing anti-homeless laws,” Fisher said. “Two cities with similar laws, and obviously the same state penal code, can make completely different decisions about which laws to enforce and how vigorously.”
Diligent research served the clinic well. By the time San Francisco’s police department responded to a citation data request that no records were available, Fisher had learned that someone in another city agency logs the numbers PAC was seeking. Fisher tracked him down and convinced him to email her the data without any formal public records request.
California’s homeless problem grew significantly amid the economic stagnation of the 1970s and major cuts in social services in the 1980s. The state’s high cost of living exacerbates the problem.
PAC has worked on homeless rights issues since its formation in 2012, when it prepared a report in advance of a Berkeley ballot measure that would have criminalized sitting or lying down in commercial zones during specified hours. The clinic represented a coalition of groups that opposed to the measure.
“Because California hasn’t invested in affordable housing, cities must address the problem on their own without sufficient resources,” Selbin said. “They’re all trying to chase the problem away by pushing homeless folks out of their municipality in the hope that they’ll end up on someone else’s social services dime. It’s a classic race to the bottom. State intervention is needed to prevent local government from enacting and enforcing these draconian laws.”