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Can California Force Homeless People Into Shelters?

Chris Nichols/Capital Public Radio
Sacramento resident Noel Tyler, 53, has been homeless for the past decade. He said he'd consider accepting a shelter bed if offered, but doesn't think individuals should be forced to do so.

Could California force homeless people to accept shelter space against their will? 

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who lead a state homlessness task force, recently proposed a way to do just that. Their “right to shelter” plan would first boost the supply of shelter space statewide — requiring cities and counties to build more beds — and then legally obligate homeless people to accept one if offered. 

No legislation has been proposed yet. But two civil rights groups say that such a law would be bad policy and potentially violate a person’s Constitutional rights. 

“You can’t compel individuals to be held in a place where they don’t want to be” unless they are a danger to themselves, said Curt Child, legislative director for the advocacy group Disability Rights of California.

Abré Conner, staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, agrees with Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas that “everyone deserves to have a safe place to sleep.” 

“But further criminalizing unhoused people who often find shelters inaccessible, dangerous, discriminatory, or worse is not the answer,” she wrote in a statement. 

Instead, Conner wants to see local governments and the state invest more in ‘immediate and longer term housing solutions” for the homeless community.

Steinberg has acknowledged there’s currently no way to force homeless people to go to a shelter until enough new beds are built. 

Even then, it would be legally questionable, according to Child. Many shelters are not accessible for people with disabilities or lack access to services.

“It’s got more of a political ring than a legal foundation to it,” said Child, who also praised Steinberg’s past work on the state’s behavioral health and homelessness crises. 

There are nearly 130,000 homeless people in California and more than two-thirds are unsheltered, meaning they sleep in cars, abandoned buildings or on the streets. 

Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas said building permanent supportive housing is the long-term solution for the state’s homelesness crisis. In the meantime, California must do more to address the problem. 

“We have sort of tacitly accepted as a society that it’s OK for people to live under bridges, on the riverbank and on the streets while we quote fix the problem. Guess what? It’s not working,” Steinberg recently told The Sacramento Bee

“It won’t be easy and it will require substantial investments in shelter, new housing options and tenant protections to counter the overwhelming force of economic and housing insecurity,” Ridley-Thomas added in a news release announcing the right to shelter proposal. 

Renee Bennett lives in Sacramento’s River District, an industrial area north of downtown with a large number of homeless residents. She said she’s been homeless for about two years and would be open to a shelter and the mayor’s plan. 

“If it was nice, I would probably give it a shot,” said Bennett, a former waitress who said she lost her job and now lives in one of the many tents that line the district’s sidewalks. “If it gives them the opportunity to clean this place up, I’d say yes.”

Noel Tyler, seated in his wheelchair on a nearby street, said he’s been homeless since 2009. The former carpenter said he’d also consider a shelter, but that decision should be up to the individual. 

“I don’t think you can force people to do something that they might not be willing to do,” Tyler added. 

Asked about the concerns raised by civil rights groups, Steinberg’s spokesperson said a federal court settlement in Orange County shows local governments have the right to enforce anti-camping laws. The deal, which was reached last week, creates standards of care for county-funded shelters and service programs. It also gives the Orange County Sheriff’s Department a mechanism to enforce anti-camping and anti-loitering laws, according to The Orange County Register. 

Child said he’s not convinced the deal would apply to forcing people into a shelter. 

“There’s an integral, fundamental right to personal liberty that individuals have,” he said. 

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio