Crime & Justice

California cities criminalizing the homeless, study says

L.A.'s Skid Row contains one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the country.
L.A.'s Skid Row contains one of the highest concentrations of homeless people in the country.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

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California cities have cracked down on the homeless in recent decades, passing new restrictions and increasingly enforcing laws that make life difficult for those without a home, according to a new study out of UC-Berkeley's School of Law.

The study, put together by Law Professor Jeffrey Selbin and a group of law and public policy students, found California cities on average have more "anti-vagrancy" laws on the books than cities in other states.

Researchers surveyed laws and restrictions on the books in 58 California cities and compared them to a survey of cities nationwide. They found California cities were 50 percent more likely to restrict food sharing with homeless and 41 percent more likely to have restrictions on sleeping in vehicles. 

Los Angeles and San Francisco tied for the most anti-vagrancy laws and restrictions in the state - 23 - followed by Long Beach and Anaheim.

Enforcement of the laws shot up between 2000 and 2012, increasing by 77 percent, according to the study.

A decade ago, anti-vagrancy laws were relatively obscure, said Paul Boden, of the Western Regional Advocacy Project

"People didn't even know that there was such a thing as 'let's criminalize sitting on a sidewalk,' " he said. "Suddenly that's spread across the country, across the state."

His group advocates for the homeless and was a partner on the study. (See the full study here.)

Boden said the latest trend is local governments passing restrictions on sharing food with homeless people. Santa Monica, Thousand Oaks, and San Bernardino all restrict food sharing to some degree, the study found.

Boden and a group of students who worked on the study traveled to Sacramento this week to lobby legislators to introduce a bill that would prohibit laws targeting the homeless.

They've successfully gotten similar bills introduced in Oregon and Colorado. None have been signed into law yet.

Boden said his larger goal is to decrease homelessness by restoring federal affordable housing funding, which was cut in the early 1980s.

"That's the cause and effect area in terms of contemporary, modern-day homelessness," he said. "We didn't have these homeless shelters everywhere before that."