Kimberly Sandoval holds a ticket in her hand in disbelief. Her infraction: being in possession of spare bicycle parts at Santa Ana’s Civic Center, a homeless encampment of an estimated 200 people in the heart of Orange County.
“A spare tire? Come on,” said Sandoval, 49. “When you have a car, you can have extra parts. Our cars are bikes. We need extra tires in case we have a blow out. If I don’t have a bike, I can’t go to my appointments. Somebody can’t get to their doctor or to work.”
This wasn’t Sandoval’s first violation. She has also been ticketed for being in possession of a tent, a lawn chair and a Bluetooth speaker—all items newly banned at the Civic Center under an ordinance passed by the City of Santa Ana late last year.
“It’s everyday things we need to live on,” she said. “It stops us from surviving.”
Also prohibited under the new law: shopping carts, pallets, golf clubs, hockey sticks, screwdrivers, solar panels, mattresses, carpets, anything that can be used as a temporary toilet or as an outdoor shower, and storing or sorting recyclable materials.
In addition, the ordinance established a new permitting process for charity and social service organizations that offer food or medical services to the Civic Center’s homeless population, a move that residents and providers say has led to a steep drop off in aid.
“They should be helping us, not hindering us,” said Sandoval, who has been homeless for the past 15 years. “Stop criminalizing us, because that’s what they’re doing. It’s not illegal to be homeless, but everything we do is illegal.”
The ordinance is the latest in the growing trend to criminalize homelessness in California, a state with 134,278 homeless people, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than one-quarter of the country’s entire homeless population.
According to a 2016 report from the UC Berkeley School of Law, in the 58 most populous cities in California, there are 592 laws restricting standing, sitting, resting, sleeping, camping, panhandling or food sharing for homeless people in public, and 781 separate laws restricting non-public spaces.
The enactment of anti-homeless laws has grown in recent decades, the report also shows, with 34 anti-homeless laws enacted in California cities in the 1950s and 111 in the 2000s, and projects another 97 will be enacted by 2019.
Voters in San Francisco approved an ordinance in 2010 that would prohibit sitting or lying on the city’s public sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. The Los Angeles City Council approved a law in 2016 that would limit storage on sidewalks to what can be fit into a 60-gallon container. And the city of El Cajon in San Diego County passed an ordinance in 2017 that prohibits the distribution of food on city-owned property.
Jeffrey Selbin, director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law and one of the authors of the report, said that these laws started popping up as a result of rising homelessness, government policy, business improvement districts and the courts.
The deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness starting in the 1950s, plus federal cuts to affordable housing in the early 1980s, Selbin explained, led to an explosion of homelessness in the 1980s. By that time, federal courts had been striking down vagrancy laws as unconstitutionally vague, so cities responded by enacting more narrowly defined anti-homeless laws that have largely been upheld by the courts. Business improvement districts have also been a driver, he said, by pushing the narrative that driving homeless people out of commercial areas will boost economic development.
Anti-homeless laws are so prevalent that in a 2010 survey conducted by the Western Regional Advocacy Project of more than 700 homeless people in California, 79 percent of respondents said that they don’t know of a safe, legal place to sleep outside at night.
In Orange County, Jordan Hoiberg of Orange County Catholic Worker explained that cities have been engaged in an “arms race of who can criminalize homeless people the most to prevent the supposed horde of homeless people from coming to their city.”
Meanwhile, the county has a shortfall of about 2,000 shelter beds needed to serve its homeless population, said Mohammed Aly, a homeless advocate and founder of the Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition, so individuals at the Santa Ana Civic Center have no viable alternative to living there.
Santa Ana’s new ordinance is being framed as a public health measure, citing complaints of city employees who have to “walk over human waste and through make-shift encampments filled with litter and used hypodermic needles,” “homeless individuals tossing buckets of urine over rails and onto pathways where individuals are splashed with waste,” “an increase in large rats and insects in the area,” and “an increase in narcotics use and sales and physical and sexual assaults occurring within the encampment areas.”
But Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center in Santa Ana, said that for the homeless population, this ordinance does just the opposite. “The written intent is health and safety, but when you look at the list of items that are prohibited, they’re doing more danger to health and safety,” she said.
One of the banned items is wooden pallets, which many in the Civic Center use to put their tents and belongings on top of to protect them from the rain water and dirt.
Mia Robles, a resident of the Civic Center, said that without her pallet, heavy rains in early January caused her tent to flood—and ruined many of her belongings. “The water was coming up, I was in that much water,” she said, holding her fingers about three inches apart. “I had to go get new sleeping bags, blankets, socks, shoes.”
Jessica Valenti, another resident of the Civic Center, said that the ban on stoves and gas tanks used for cooking in combination with the regulations on charity organizations has meant that she no longer gets proper meals. She used to cook for herself everyday and also received daily bag lunches from a variety of church and volunteer groups. But now, she said, “it’s maybe twice a week” that social service organizations come by with food.
“We can get Cup Noodles and run to A&P and hope that they let us use the microwave,” she said. “Or put some water in a cup, sit it in the sun and hope it gets warm enough.”
Another banned item is solar panels, which Weitzman said are commonly used to charge cell phones, and without them clients have difficulty staying in touch with case managers.
These laws also do little to end homelessness, said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which is pushing a “Right to Rest” act in California.
Tickets usually come with a financial penalty, he explained, but “You’re not entitled to an attorney because it’s not a misdemeanor—it’s an infraction—so you have no legal right to representation.” Failure to pay or appear in court means the fine increases, and can become a misdemeanor and cause for a bench warrant. If a person is then taken to jail, they can lose all their belongings, their space at a shelter or their spot on a waiting list for housing. “It’s this repetitive cycle,” he said. “That’s today’s homeless program.”
According to Berkeley’s Selbin, change is coming slowly. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of housing bills that aim to create more affordable housing and shelters for homeless people, Los Angeles voters approved a measure that will raise taxes to fund rapid rehousing and other homeless support services, and the city of Berkeley moved to repeal an anti-homeless ordinance on its books.
For Sandoval, who’s been on a housing wait-list for a year, help can’t come fast enough.
“Every ticket that goes against me stops my housing,” she said, wiping away tears.
“I’ve been out here 15 years. I’m tired. I want out. Help me write letters, help me do whatever needs to be done, instead of giving me these tickets.”