Wiping the Slate Clean for California’s Homeless Population

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The homeless population in California is a critical concern for state lawmakers. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, California has one of the highest rates of homelessness, with a rate of 367 homeless per 100,000 residents. California accounts for over one-fifth of America’s total homeless population.

LA county saw an increase in the number of people living on the streets over the past couple years. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the homeless population increased at least 12% in two years. Key factors for the rise in homelessness include the lack of affordable housing and the economic climate after the recent recession. Mayor Eric Garcetti has said, “ending homelessness is one of my top priorities as mayor.”

Efforts to Reduce Homelessness

In attempts to discourage people, 58 cities in California enacted laws aimed at the homeless. Los Angeles and San Francisco have some of the most restrictive regulations, against such activities as panhandling, sharing food, or sleeping in a public place.

As a result of the criminalization of homelessness, many transient people receive citations for things like “illegal camping.” These citations come with fines. When the fines are not paid, additional penalties pile up, and a warrant is issued. If caught again, they may face an arrest for the warrant, and possible jail time, as well as a mark on their criminal record. Advocates argue that these citations are a waste of city resources.

Mike Feuer apparently agrees. Feuer, the City Attorney for Los Angeles has announced a new program that would give those with minor citations a clean slate. The $270,000 program would wipe away minor citations and fines if the homeless accept job training, drug and alcohol treatment and perform community service.

Feuer said the program is intended to give the homeless better access to jobs and housing, relieving them of the barriers created by unpaid citations. The tickets and citations would be administratively removed without the need for formal court appearance. The City Attorney’s office will conduct clinics in various locations around Los Angeles County, for the next three years.

Advocacy for California’s Homeless Population

Advocates don’t think the program is enough, and would rather see law enforcement back off from issuing homeless citations in the first place. In effect, saying, homelessness is not a crime. Currently, there are several challenges in court calling the laws unconstitutional. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down one Los Angeles municipal code against lodging in a vehicle. The law is now arbitrary and discriminatory against the homeless and the poor.

There have been some high profile cases of heavy fines involving people feeding the homeless in Texas and Florida. One woman in San Antonio received a fine for $2,000 for handing out food on the street. When interviewed, she claims the law infringes on her religious rights. Many California cities have similar bans against sharing food, which may involve offering food to the homeless.

With this in mind, a state program addressing mounting citation debt will go into effect on 10/1. For tickets issued before January 2013, the program would eliminate up to 80% of citation-related fees. The program also reinstates driving privileges related to unpaid infraction debts. However, the state-wide program would only reduce the debts, and does not address post-2013 citations.

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John Devendorf
John Devendorf
John Devendorf is a California barred attorney and graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law. He writes on a range of legal topics including criminal law, immigration, and legal marketing. While he is not a member of The Kavinoky Law Firm, we share his legal insights on topics important to our clients.