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How a statewide homeless "Bill of Rights" might trip up San Diego

(This article originally appeared HERE in Voice of San Diego.)

A few local lawmakers and advocates who might not typically agree seem to be in accord on this: The “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights” moving its way through the state legislature could dull some of the best tools San Diego has crafted to balance the rights of homeless people and with other residents’ concerns.

The bill’s author, San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, crafted the measure as a response to some California cities’ ordinances to curb the presence of homeless people on their streets.

The bill passed the Judiciary Committee last week, 7- 3, and next heads to the Appropriations Committee. The only San Diego member of the Judiciary Committee, Brian Maienschein, voted against the bill.

He said he’d want to keep the police — especially the SDPD Homeless Outreach Team — involved in helping the city provide services to homeless people.

“The HOT team has been extremely helpful,” he said. “I don’t want something that keeps the police out of it.”

But, he acknowledged, “other people’s experiences in other cities may be different.”

The bill would require California cities and unincorporated areas to have facilities with showers and restrooms for homeless people to use 24 hours a day.

That’s a hot topic locally. Six portable toilets that advocate David “The Waterman” Ross installed and helped sponsor in downtown San Diego have recently been removed, exacerbating the scarcity of public restrooms downtown for people who live on the streets.

And though the city moved in March to spend $400,000 to install in downtown two metal toilets modeled after some popularized in Portland, the group tasked with ordering them was skeptical. That group, redevelopment spinoff CivicSD, complained the city hasn’t identified $21,000 per year to maintain the toilets once they get installed.

As the bill envisions, the bathroom/shower component would be funded by the state Department of Health, even though state legislators acknowledged that’s a tall order amid California’s budget woes. Some other provisions may be left up to local governments to fund and implement. Some of the more controversial elements, like decriminalizing public urination, have been stripped from the bill.

Among the bill’s other key provisions: Homeless people would have the right to rest, eat and panhandle in public places — or in their legally parked cars — unless “the county has satisfied a set of requirements that include a relatively low unemployment rate, a short wait for public housing and readily available public assistance,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

Maienschein, a Republican whose district includes Kearny Mesa, Mission Trails Regional Park, Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Santa Fe and Mira Mesa, told the San Francisco Chronicle that provisions and services for assisting homeless people should be decided at the local level. Before he was elected, Maienschein worked for the United Way San Diego as an advocate for the agency’s Project 25 program for chronically homeless people.

A couple of other local homeless advocates think the bill is misguided, too — including Scott Dreher, who’s sued the city of San Diego over homeless people’s right to sleep without having their belongings thrown away. Those suits led to settlements with the city. One banned the police from ticketing homeless people for sleeping on the streets when there aren’t any open shelter beds. Another led to the creation of a check-in storage center for belongings.

Dreher said he fears a blanket statement of rights could dissuade local governments from negotiating solutions like the ones born out of the settlements.

“I like the theory behind the legislation,” Dreher said. “You shouldn’t discriminate against people because they’re homeless, they smell bad or have crappy clothes on. … I think the legislation just goes too far. It just grants permission to be homeless without anything on society’s part to help it or fix it.”

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I'm Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.