National

California lawmakers try to address homelessness with new proposed encampment ban

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — (SACRAMENTO, Calif.) -- A new bill in California aims to ban homeless encampments near "sensitive community areas" statewide.

The bipartisan Senate Bill 1011, introduced earlier this month, would ban people from "sitting, lying, sleeping or storing, using, maintaining or placing personal property upon a street or sidewalk" if a homeless shelter is available.

It also bans people from camping within 500 feet of a public or private school, open space or major transit stop. A violation could result in a misdemeanor or an infraction but, according to the bill's sponsors, it would be up to local officials to determine how to enforce the misdemeanor violations.

State Sens. Brian Jones, a Republican, and Catherine Blakespear, a Democrat, say the bill is intended to address issues of homelessness in a state with the largest homeless population in the United States.

"What we are trying to do is compassionately clearing encampments near areas that are sensitive to the public and the public needs to have safe access to," Jones said in an interview with ABC News.

"It is not compassionate for us to have people dying on the streets in front of us and in our public spaces while we walk by them," Blakespear said in a separate interview with ABC News.

This bill, introduced on Feb. 5, would require law enforcement to give "verbal or written information regarding alternative locations to sleep, homeless and mental health services, or homeless shelters in the area."

Under the proposed bill, each locality would be expected to have its own policies on what happens to someone's property when they are moved out of a camping site and those sites are cleaned out, both lawmakers told ABC News.

Some of California's homeless shelters have been under fire in recent years, mired by allegations from civil rights groups of poor conditions including rodent and bedbug infestations, filthy bathrooms and harassment.

The American Civil Liberties Union accused Orange County shelters in 2019 of "unsafe and unsanitary living conditions," "discrimination and abuse," and "deprivation of fundamental rights."

The County of Orange issued a statement to news outlets, including the LAist, following the report, saying at the time that local officials are "committed to ensuring our emergency shelters are safe for all our clients. Each emergency shelter has its own provider and complaint process. We work to ensure valid complaints are addressed by our service providers in a timely fashion."

When asked about how shelter conditions would impact the implementation of this program, Blakespear and Jones both pointed to tactics used in San Diego under its Unsafe Camping Ordinance, which the senators say their bill was inspired by. The city of San Diego opened safe camping sites so people could choose to continue to camp in managed, designated areas where they have access to bathrooms, food, water and social workers to help get people back on their feet.

Jones and Blakespear say they hope California cities embrace similar initiatives to support the bill's goal. However, the creation of safe camping sites is not mentioned in the bill.

"There are lots of reasons people don't want to be in congregate shelters -- concerns about theft, lack of privacy," Blakespear said. "I think having safe camping, along with safe parking and permanent supportive housing, and also additional emphasis on mental health and substance abuse issues and having more beds available for people there, those are all pieces of the puzzle."

Jones said safe camping areas can provide better enforcement against harassment and violent interactions, which he said may also occur in unmanaged encampment sites. Both lawmakers said having a steady place for homeless residents to access social services is vital to achieving stability.

"If they're in the safe camping areas when the social services people come, they know they're going to be able to interact with that person on a regular and continuous basis," Jones said.

Homelessness has continued to increase nationwide since 2016, according to federal data. A recent report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023, a 12% increase from 2022.

Roughly 28% of all people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. -- 181,399 people -- are in California, according to HUD. Roughly 68% of that homeless population is experiencing homelessness outdoors, data shows.

Jones and Blakespear's proposed bill is not the only homelessness-focused initiative in the works in the state.

Proposition 1 -- dubbed "Treatment Not Tents" -- has been the subject of debate ahead of the state's March vote.

The proposition intends to create supportive housing for people with severe mental illness to achieve stability, expand community-based mental health services, support the mental health workforce and prioritize treatment over incarceration, among other goals. However, the distribution of funding on a local level has prompted debate, with some critics arguing it could divert funds from other mental health programs, according to the Secretary of State Voter Guide.

In August 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced that the state will convert several vacant office buildings in Sacramento into affordable housing to address high housing costs and homelessness in the state.

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