Cruel and unusual punishment

Pub date May 16, 2006
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Homelessness was recently put on trial in California. It was found not guilty.

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declared April 14 that the city of Los Angeles can’t arrest those who have no choice but to sleep on its streets. It’s a victory for those of us who believe that homelessness is not a crime, but a symptom of an unjust economic system.

At issue in the LA case was a 37-year-old law prohibiting sitting, lying, and sleeping on the sidewalks. Six homeless folks brought the complaint in 2003 with the aid of the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild.

In her ruling against the statute, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote: "Because there is substantial and undisputed evidence that the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles far exceeds the number of available shelter beds at all times," the city is guilty of criminalizing people who engage in "the unavoidable act of sitting, lying, or sleeping at night while being involuntarily homeless." She termed this criminalization "cruel and unusual" punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Her enlightened opinion should guide public policy everywhere, especially here in San Francisco. In our "progressive" city, we have gay weddings at City Hall and an annual S-M street fair, yet our views on the homeless are as 19th century as the rest of the country’s opinions on gay marriage and kinky sex. The majority of voting people here still favor the old-fashioned method of punishing the poor and the homeless. That’s how Care Not Cash and our current antipanhandling measure managed to become law.

According to Religious Witness with the Homeless, in the first 22 months of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration, San Francisco police issued 1,860 citations for panhandling and sleeping on the sidewalks, as well as 11,000 "quality of life" tickets. That’s more than were issued under former mayor Willie Brown in a similar time period. How many officers did it take to issue those citations? How much money did it cost the city? What better things could San Francisco have done with the money to actually help those who were cited? How many of the people cited are now in permanent affordable housing with access to services they need to put their lives back together?

Homelessness can’t be eradicated with punitive measures. Addressing homelessness in America doesn’t mean sweeping the poor out of sight of tourists or upscale neighbors. It doesn’t mean taking away the possessions of homeless folks or fining people for sleeping in their cars. It means addressing the basic social inequities that create homelessness, among them low-paying jobs, the immorally high cost of housing, and the prohibitive price of health care.

It means having drug and mental health treatment for those who need it when they need it.

That’s the real message behind Wardlaw’s ruling.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>

Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, working-class, queer, southern Italian activist, performer, and writer.