No Sleeping in Richmond:
By Simon Kinsella, November 28, 2002 12:49 PM
Homeless Face Ban on Camping in City
RICHMOND -- When the City of Richmond overwhelmingly approved an ordinance last winter making it illegal to camp in public, Terry Messman was hardly surprised.
Messman, the editor of Street Spirit, a homeless rights newspaper, has seen anti-camping legislation emerge in several cities in the Bay Area. Gentrification, he said, fuels the need to displace the homeless.
"You have gentrification in San Francisco, which has seen an alarming increase in the number of homeless people," Messman said. "And you have gentrification in Oakland, which has also enacted anti-camping legislation. Basically, Richmond is trying to ape those cities."
On December 11, 2001, Richmond joined the growing ranks of East Bay cities that have enacted legislation prohibiting sleeping in public. The city immediately drew fire from homeless advocates, who charge it impinges on civil liberties by criminalizing homelessness.
"Sleep is a physiological necessity," Messman said. "There are legal grounds for disobeying this ordinance."
Those grounds, he said, are rooted in a time three years ago in Santa Ana, when police arrested a Santa Ana resident named James W. Eichorn for violating the city's anti-camping ordinance. Eichorn took his case to court, where an appeals court overturned a lower court ruling in which he was convicted.
Homeless advocates claimed victory, and the Eichorn's case became a staple of what legal experts call the "necessity defense."
"The necessity defense basically says if the city doesn't have adequate shelter for its homeless residents, then people are justified in sleeping in public, because they have nowhere else to go," said Adriana Quintero, assistant city attorney in Richmond.
Proponents of the necessity defense won a victory in 1999 in nearby Albany, when 12 jurors found Michael Smith not guilty of violating the city's anti-camping ordinance. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ron Greenburg ruled the ordinance was unenforceable because the city did not provide adequate shelter for its homeless.
But while the courts have allowed for the necessity defense, they haven't gone so far as to rule anti-camping ordinances are unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court refused to hear Santa Ana's appeal in the Eichorn case, leaving much speculation as to the legality of anti-camping legislation.
In 2001, the Contra Costa County Homeless Continuum of Care Advisory Board produced its five-year plan for dealing with the county's homeless problem. That report found 14,757 homeless in Contra Costa County, 47 percent of whom live in the west county, of which Richmond is a part.
Richmond Public Information Officer Angela Jones estimates Richmond has "between 400 and several thousand" homeless people, depending on the time of year. She said as a part of the ordinance, the Richmond city council gave $80,000 to fund 25 beds at the city's Brookside Homeless Shelter. But the shelter, the only one of its kind in Richmond, has a 100-person capacity, and the wait list can be long, especially with winter now approaching.
"Basically, if a person is picked up for violating the ordinance, the police will ask if they want to be taken to the shelter," Quintero said. "If the shelter is full, their names will be added for a bed the next night." Quintero said the turnover rate at the shelter was about one bed per night.
She also said she did not know of anybody who had been prosecuted under the ordinance, which by law is an infraction and carries no possibility for jail time.
Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson defended the measure, saying the council devised the ordinance as a means of providing shelter for those who routinely sleep outdoors.
"This is not an anti-homeless ordinance," she said. "It's a public health ordinance."
Still, opponents of the anti-camping ordinance claim it is a heavy-handed measure without good purpose.
"This law violates a higher law," said Jerome Smith, a Richmond resident who lobbies on behalf of homeless causes. "It's simply an affront to human dignity."