Scott Wiener Says Tom Ammiano's Homeless Bill Is "Not Humane," "Makes No Sense"

Scott Lucas | April 26, 2013 | Story Politics

Dating back to his time on the Board of Supervisors, State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano has been a strong advocate against what he sees as the criminalization of the homeless. Now, as he runs up against term limits in his penultimate year in the State Assembly, he is swinging for the fences. His AB 5, the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, would establish a bevy of legal protections for homeless people, including drastically limiting the ability of local governments to enforce sit/lie ordinances, like the one in place in San Francisco. But while the bill survived a key committee vote by a 7-3 margin on Tuesday, it's running into some vocal opposition from key lawmakers on Ammiano's home turf.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, for one, describes himself as "very opposed" to the legislation. Wiener believes that Ammiano's proposal is, "not humane. It would encourage the kind of unhealthy behavior that leads people to live on the street who should be in shelters. San Francisco spends $200 million dollars on homeless related services," he continued, "but in addition to providing those services, we have to enforce minimum standards of behavior on our street." Wiener, a supporter of the city's existing Sit/Lie and Care Not Cash laws, argues that the issues are not simply about poverty. He points instead to "a diverse problem" that includes mental health and drug addiction. "It makes no sense for the state to dictate to cities and towns how to manage their public spaces."

"This issue has been obscured by emotions," answers Ammiano. "It cannot be criminal to be homeless. But to get that shift in people's minds is challenging. Because of the endemic neglect of the homelessness issue, people immediately go into threat mode." Ammiano's bill would establish a number of rights for homeless people, including—among other things—the ability to use public spaces, to sleep in legally parked automobiles, and to reject admittance to shelters or social service treatment. It would also require localities to establish health and hygiene centers open 24 hours a day, and only allow the enforcement of sit/lie ordinances contingent upon medical assistance and housing—a provision that some opponents charge would be tantamount to the elimination of those laws.

The bill has the support of a number of homeless advocacy and service organizations, including the Coalition on Homelessness, whose Executive Director Jennifer Friendenbach said, "We spend something like $12 million dollars every year in San Francisco on arresting, citing, prosecuting, and harassing people whose only crime is being too poor to find a place to live. We trying to move the resources to a permanent solution." Paul Boden, the Organizing Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Program and himself formerly homeless, said that city ordinances like sit/lie are part of a historical trend of "using minor offenses to get rid of people that local communities don't want to see. Here in California, we've had anti-Japanese sundown town laws, anti-Okie laws, and 'ugly' laws that criminalized vagrancy starting in the 1860s. This is the civil rights issue of our time." His organization is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Facing criticism—from the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial page, some local governments (like the City of Concord), and business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce, who put AB 5 on their annual list of "Job Killer" bills—Ammiano has softened several provisions in the original draft of the bill, removing proposed protections of the right to defecate and urinate, and exempting private businesses from its scope.

In a statement, the Mayor's office said although Mayor Lee has not taken an official position, he "has concerns that the bill might slow the progress we have made on homelessness in San Francisco and create more obstacles in the way we provide supportive services to the homeless population in the City."

When asked to respond to Wiener and Lee's concerns, Ammiano struck conciliatory—but firm—notes. "This has been a highly politicized issue, and the messengers have been shot. But, we have been working with all the stakeholders, which has resulted in changes." In its original form, Ammiano noted, the bill protected the right to urinate and defecate, and included private businesses within its provisions. The current version has eliminated those components. "I'm sitting by the phone for Mayor Lee. I believe that he is sincere, and I know this is a volatile issue," said Ammiano, before commenting on his relationship with Wiener. "And I love Scott, although we occasionally do things differently. The door is open. I don't want people to get their panties in a bunch because they read something self-serving [in the Chronicle]."

From here, the bill moves to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, and then potentially to the floor of the Assembly, the Senate, and Governor Jerry Brown.

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