Local News

Saturday, Apr 27 2013 08:00 PM

Sleeping, panhandling in public? Homeless rights bill becomes contentious debate

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Phillip Wright is homeless and was getting breakfast at St. Vincent de Paul Center in east Bakersfield Friday.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Homeless man John Weser shows a Californian reporter some of the citations he has received from the city for various violations that he can't afford to pay.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Fabian Baca enjoys a meal at St. Vincent de Paul Center Friday morning next to his belongings he keeps with him. He says it's real hard living on the streets.

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BY LAURA LIERA Californian staff writer lliera@bakersfield.com

Three times a week, John Weser stands in line at the St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Center for a warm meal.

It's a respite from what can be a harsh world outside for people who don't have a place to call their own.

The 52-year-old man's action's -- sleeping in public and rummaging through trash cans for recyclabes -- have earned Weser tickets from police.

Sleeping in public? That's a $70 ticket. Sleeping in an unsafe area? That'll cost him $291.

"There is no way I can pay all these tickets especially because I don't panhandle so I just rely on recycling and that only gets me about 20 bucks a week, if I'm lucky," he said. If fines aren't paid, jail could be next.

The survival actions of some homeless people, including sitting, sleeping and panhandling in public areas, could get a legal OK under Assembly Bill 5, which passed a California legislative committee Tuesday, if it went so far as to become law.

The bill seeks to enact the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, which would give every homeless person the right to move freely, rest, solicit donations, pray, meditate and receive food in public spaces without being subject to criminal or civil sanctions. Sponsor Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, says every person has a right to use public spaces, regardless of housing status.

It's a contentious issue, with homeless people and their advocates, the general public, law enforcement, business owners and people who are hit up for money taking sides.

Lindsey Olson, 20 of Bakersfield works at a store on California Avenue. She encounters panhandlers near the business daily, and is strongly against the bill. She'd rather see long-term help for the homeless.

"It bothers me to see them around where I work because it can discourage a customer from coming into the store," she said. "I don't hand them money because I know what struggling to live is as well but I wanted better for myself and they should too."

Business owner David Hollowell, 39 of Tools-N-Thangs on 19th Street, says homeless people lounge around outside his store but has sympathy for them.

"I know them by name, that is how normal it is for me to see them around here," he said. "But I feel for them because when I was young I was homeless and it's tough out there but they can get help and turn their life around."

Currently, California Penal Code Section 647 says that sleeping in a public place and panhandling for the purpose of begging are misdemeanors. Homeless people can ask for money but cannot accost drivers or people walking down the street.

"It is unfortunate that they are homeless but we remove them from public areas because of safety issues and quality of life," said Sgt. Joe Grubbs of the Bakersfield Police Department. "If you have kids, you should have the freedom of taking your kids to the park and not have to worry about a homeless man sleeping on a bench or by an area where your kids play."

But Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate at Western Center on Law and Poverty who worked closely with Ammiano on the bill, sees things differently.

"We have learned through years of experience and by talking to homeless that arrests are made for non-malicious acts and that is a misuse of capital money that doesn't help in the short or long term," Bartholow said.

The Homeless Bill of Rights would prohibit police from enforcing ordinances regarding resting in public places unless a county has provided what the bill calls sufficient support to homeless people.

According to Grubbs, homeless people can take a nap during the day in public places like a park, but cannot create a camp or shelter on any public property between sunset and sunrise.

But it is after nightfall that many homeless people have nowhere to go.

"I stay here alongside St. Vincent or in the parking lot once they all leave at night because I feel somewhat safe being close by the center," said Fabian Baca, 48, as he took a bite from his bowl of warm rice, beans and meat.

Baca has been homeless for five months after being kicked out of a motel on Union Avenue and his home is now on wheels.

Neatly organized, there are three Nesquik strawberry flavored milk powder jugs inside the shopping cart that now carries all his belongings. When he lifts the green tarp covering the cart that he uses frequently for shade, a couple of pillows and bed comforters pop out.

"I have canned food, Top Ramen soups, and my clothes in my mobile home," he said, smiling as he joked about his mobile home being the smallest one he's ever seen.

Baca and about 150 homeless all arrive at St. Vincent at 9:30 a.m. sharp to receive the first hot meal that is served daily. The second meal is at 11 a.m.

Joanne Border, 72, who helps oversee the center's operation, has seen an increase in homeless people arriving at the center for food, showers and clothes. She doesn't think the bill is a good idea.

"Homelessness is a problem in Kern and in the state itself but it's not as simple as saying that a bill that would allow them to sleep in the streets is a solution," she said. "Realistically, it's not safe out there for them and there are not bathroom facilties for them to rely on."

The bill addresses hygiene issues, that is, to require state government to pay for creating local "hygiene centers" with restrooms and showers open 24 hours a day. But Louis Medina,. the local Homeless Project Manager at United Way of Kern County, says that is not the answer to end homelessness.

"It is important for California as a state to be considering human rights and civil rights of homeless, as it humanizes them, but we need to try and help these individuals by getting them into organizations that can help them," Medina said.

Educating the community to understand the different levels of homelessness and coming together as a community is something that Medina made clear is important.

"We have been reducing homelessness but the numbers can't go down if we as a community don't tackle the problem together," Medina said.

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