Homeless 103: (un)Civil Rights

Posted: March 10, 2007 in Bureauacracy, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Employment, Government, Homelessness, Panhandling, Police Harrassment

The 1st Amendment deals with the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly; the 4th prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures; and the 8th prohibits excessive bails, fines and cruel and unusual punishment. Keeping all of that in mind…  

Being homeless in SLO means that you have a very good chance of being harassed by the Police at least once for no other reason than you’re homeless. While it’s true that SLO has a day center for the homeless, it is a pretty depressing place to be at. As a result, most of the "clients," as they’re called, leave straightaway after lunch. Unless they have a medical or other appointment of some kind, most of them will simply meander through various parts of town.

In the spring of 2006, the SLO city council adopted Ordinance #1491, which amended Chapter 9.04 of the Municipal Code and added Chapter 9.40. The vote was 4 yeas, 1 nay.

In a nutshell, this ordinance prohibits solicitation (panhandling) at certain locations and also prohibits anyone from sitting on public benches for more than an hour at a time and more than three hours in any given twenty-four hour period.

Here’s the kick in the pants: panhandling is protected under the 1st Amendment. So what if I wanted to sit for three hours on the same public bench protesting, let’s say, the war in Iraq? See where I’m coming from?

On one occasion, me and five other homeless people were standing in front of, the now, out of business Copeland’s Sports store. We were waiting for a gentleman named AJ to come out with some fancy signs advertising the 30% to 50% Off Going Out Of Business sale. Of course, we were quickly hassled by the Police, who wanted to know what we were doing just "standing around."

Even after we explained the situation, they continued to watch us – just in case. Had we all been wearing nice sweaters and jackets instead of carrying grungy looking backpacks would we have been hassled? I doubt it. I believe they wouldn’t have given us a second look.

The irony is that Tom Copeland was one of the business owners who pushed for the passage of Ordinance 1491, saying that the loitering and panhandling of the homeless in the downtown area were affecting the revenues of local downtown businesses. Yet, here we were, six homeless people, who were going to be standing on various corners announcing his sales. I guess the homeless really did help him go out of business.

On another occasion, I had one Police Officer say to me: "Why don’t YOU people leave? As a homeowner in the community that’s what I want."

Since I’m a homeless person, I obviously don’t own a home in the community. But then again, according to a recent article in SLO New Times, there are a large percentage of the people in our community who also aren’t homeowners. Should they, as non-homeowners, be asked: "Why don’t you people leave?" Or is it okay for a Police Officer say something as sarcastic to someone simply because they are "just homeless?"

And while I’m on my soapbox…

The fines imposed if you do happen to violate Ordinance #1491 are pretty hefty.

It’s something like $95 if you’re cited for sitting on a public bench for more than an hour. It’s roughly $146 if you get cited for panhandling at certain locations. By the way, it’s only $35 if you’re cited for parking illegally in a commercial loading zone. Go figure.

Let me see… where was I reading something about excessive fines? Oh yeah, that’s right – Constitution of The United States. The 8th Amendment wasn’t it – that said excessive fines SHALL NOT be imposed?

It seems quite clear to me that if you fine some poor schmuck $95 because he’s just trying to survive and you fine a driver of a BMW only $35 for illegal parking, you’re imposing excessive fines in a discriminatory manner.

Let me put it this way… If you’ve got a criminal mentality, if you’re mean, nasty or otherwise lacking some sense of morals – please choose another city. Those of us in this community – both homeless and non-homeless – are just trying to survive.

Singer/Songwriter Billy Joel, early in his career wrote a song that had this line:

"…I found that just surviving was a noble fight."

Amen to that!

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