Public Comment

Finally, A Bill of Rights for the Homeless!

By Rita McKeon, Member of the BOSS Community Organizing Team (COT), a project of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency
Thursday April 04, 2013 - 08:35:00 PM

Authored by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, the California Homeless Bill of Rights, AB5, had its first hearing in Sacramento on April 1st, 2013.

In recent years several cities have enacted or attempted to enact “broken window” lawslaws designed to criminalize homeless people and remove them from public view. The California Homeless Bill of Rights and Fairness Act is a first step to de-criminalize homelessness and grant equal rights protection to ALL: housed and un-housed.

This legislation would be a major public statement recognizing the basic human and civil rights of people without homes. It will help shift our discussions from the characterization of homeless people as vagrants or service-resistant to the reality in our society that there are not enough homes that are affordable on very low incomes, not enough jobs for people with low skills, not enough care for people with serious physical and mental health needs. Our discussions can then shift from blaming the victims to solving the problems: this is what AB5 will do—publicly validate the dignity of people without homes so we can direct our attention and resources to fixing the problems they face. 

Inhumane laws do not solve poverty, they only increase the misery of being poor. In many major US cities there are ordinances that make it punishable by law to feed homeless people and laws that make it illegal to “camp” in a public space, ultimately making it illegal to sleep, a basic human need. Some laws even make it illegal to sleep in your car. Hundreds maybe thousands of people end up with citations they cannot afford to pay, some facing jail time because they were caught sitting or sleeping.  

This is both a waste of tax payer dollars and a civil rights abuse. In February 2013, in the San Francisco Tenderloin District, a homeless man spent 30 days in jail because on two occasions a police officer found him sleeping on a milk crate. He was charged with public nuisance, unauthorized lodging and obstructing a sidewalk. The first two violations are listed as misdemeanors which can carry a year of jail time each – again, for sleeping on a milk carton. 

Whose quality of life is being improved by broken window laws? City officials say the goal of these ordinances is to preserve quality of life and keep down public nuances. Yet, citing homeless people and inflicting them with costly violations and jail time does not address their quality of life—rather, these laws are designed to serve big business and developers who want clear streets and storefronts. The fact is, people do have the right to sit, stand, and gather peacefully in public areas. And for behaviors that are less than peaceful or that damage property, there are already laws in place. 

Everyone is deserving of equal rights and protection. The California Homeless Bill of Rights and Fairness Act will assure the protection of homeless people’s property rights, access to public space, right to safety, right to sufficient health and hygiene centers, right to engage in life sustaining activities, right to privacy and confidentiality, right to counsel, right for homeless school children to stay at the same school they attended before they became homeless, and more. You can find the full Bill text on  

It’s about respect and dignity! When AB5 is passed it will help ensure that homeless people are treated as human beings: with respect and dignity. Send a letter of support to your district Assembly Member. Visit to learn more about the efforts to pass AB-5. 

AB-5 is authored by Assembly Member Tom Ammiano (D, San Francisco) and co-sponsored by Western Regional Advocacy Project, Western Center on Law and Poverty, JERICHO: A Voice for Justice, and the East Bay Community Law Center. See a full list of Bill supporters at