Homeless Bills of Rights-New Narratives

by: Posted on: September 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: Continuing our coverage of rights-based movements and narratives. Simon Davis-Cohen speaks with Paul Boden about Homeless Bills of Rights.

Paul Boden is Western Regional Advocacy Project ‘s Organizing Director. He became homeless at the age of 16 after the death of his mother. Paul served as Executive Director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness for 16 years and was a founder of the Community Housing Partnership, a nationally recognized permanent housing corporation with optional supportive services. He has received dozens of community awards during the last twenty-five years and recognition from the city and county of San Francisco, the State of California, and the Congress of the United States. Paul regularly writes articles and op-eds and travels throughout the country giving talks and trainings.



Simon Davis-Cohen: How has homelessness become criminalized? How has this process been disguised?

Paul Boden: Sleeping (camping), standing (loitering) and sitting on sidewalks are the three major criminal offenses homeless people report being cite, harassed and arrested for. By a large margin! Other common offenses are panhandling, jaywalking, sleeping in a vehicle and being in public parks after closing hours (disobeying a sign). There are others but these are the findings we hear most often.

Local governments have used these seemingly minor offenses to criminalize the presence of people they wish to remove from their communities, going back to the “ugly laws” of the 1860’s, through sundown towns, operation wetback, anti-okie and of course Jim Crow. A tried and true pattern and practice.

SDC: What are Homeless Bills of Rights and how will they help?

PB: One thing about the discriminatory laws of the past and the anti-homeless laws we see today is that if the goal is to decrease the area of certain people, they actually work!! When one side has 24-hour policing, private security guards, arcane laws and the blessing to enforce the laws in a discriminatory fashion, you can focus your efforts on specific neighborhoods (or what today are called Business Improvement Districts) and in a short time the people being targeted will in fact leave.

California and Oregon Homeless Bills of Rights will say to local governments “you have abused your power and therefore you can no longer pass/enforce laws to criminalize a person for the acts of resting, eating, sleeping.”

SDC: How do Homeless Bills of Rights compare to previously unfruitful tactics?

PB: Not sure HBRs do compare. What I know is no civil rights legislation has ever been an easy or quick campaign and the organizers out here understand this and are very well prepared that we are in a multi-year campaign.

If any previous efforts were unsuccessful I can only assume that it was because the groups behind them got disenfranchised, tired, broke, etc and gave up. We are already disenfranchised, tired and broke so we don’t have to worry about that.

SDC: Where has the concept of Homeless Bills of Rights gained traction?

PB: Clearly in the messaging that young kids outside public housing, day laborers on the corners, SRO (Single Room Occupany) residents whose living room is the street in front of their rooms, homeless people, people escaping domestic violence (that are forced to hide from the police rather then be protected by them), mentally ill people (who by far get impacted the most with these laws/enforcement), anti P.I.C. groups, spiritual organizations that believe in justice. All of us benefit when we join together and demand that we all have a right to exist and nobody gets the awesome power of LAW to criminalize our presence.

Having passed HBR’s in three states now (Rhode Island, Conn and Illionis) some statewide changes have already been made, at least in terms of discriminatory actions against homeless people regarding access to services, employment and housing and yes I definitely think the potential for even greater changes is there. For the campaign we are running in California and Oregon our goal is to build off of and expand on the accomplishments of the bills that have passed to also include stopping the criminalization of the mere presence of poor and homeless people, while we/they sit, stand sleep and eat.

SDC: Why do you believe the homeless and their advocates have turned to asserting Bills of Rights? What is the power in asserting and defining rights within law?

PB: Our groups have turned to this campaign after years of each of us individually fighting one asinine local law, or homeless encampment police sweep, or panhandling parking meters, or local political campaigns based on which politician can make us disappear quicker. Even when we have defeated a particular law or ballot initiative a new law or reworded version of the old law takes its place.

We are attacking the source of local government power to do this to us, by enacting State law that gives locals “time, place and manner” legal authority. We are curtailing local government power due to a clear long time history of local abuse.

SDC: Do you see a parallel between the homeless and their advocates’ support of Bills of Rights, because current law is failing to protect these rights, and a sentiment within the general public that might be interested in passing Bills of Rights for analogous reasons? Do you think the greater public has something to learn from the Bill of Rights tactic that the homeless are embracing?

PB: I see an impact with “general public” when we show the documentation of the historical trends of how this type of displacement through criminalization has played out in the past. When people understand that today’s laws have parallels to the laws that led to sundown towns we ask them: if you were around when sundown towns were at their peak, would you have stood up and spoken out against them, or would you have been one of the many who gave their support with their silence?


White America has very little understanding of what it means to be oppressed (especially at the time it is happening) because very rarely is a well dressed white person targeted with enforcement, but even White America can read a fucking history book, and most of us are repulsed by the historical reality that not very long ago towns where “certain” people had to leave before sundown had the authority of law. Today “certain” people can’t lie down, stand still or sit and rest, meaning the only legal activity they can do is walk and keep walking, and keep walking. Sounds like a fucking sundown town to me!

SDC: What do you think about the idea of combining HBRs with broader bills of rights, so as to form coalitions with constituents focusing their efforts on other forms of rights?

PB: The rights that are specified in the HBR’s (for California and Oregon) will already dramatically impact the lives of more then “just” homeless people…day laborers, SRO residents (who spend much time outside on the sidewalks in front of hotels), young kids, public housing residents, as well as any hungry person getting free food, all of us are caught up under the fucked up quality of life policing programs and harassment of BID security…our coalition out here already has legal, hunger, church, housing, criminal justice and legal services groups very much involved in our campaign…so I feel like this is already a part of what we are accomplishing.

Ultimately yes absolutely if any of us is going to see a “victory” all of us are going to have to join forces under the banner of social justice…just not sure we are there yet beyond the stage of recognition that it needs to happen, we still face the question of HOW!

SDC: Thoughts on the movement to elevate Nature into a legal person?

PB: Guess if they make Nature a rich white person…otherwise not sure we are doing her a favor.


Photo: BOSSWEB1/flickr

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