Fresno Activists Plan to Protest Camping Ban

January 26, 2016 Sacramento, CA Photo by Dylan Donnelly

Mike Rhodes, author of Dispatches from the War Zone (The Most Important Book About Fresno’s Persecution Of The Homeless), is calling for civil disobedience in protest of the Unhealthy and Hazardous Camping Act; or Camping Ban. The Fresno City Council passed the Camping Ban despite warnings from the ACLU that the ordinance was unconstitutional. In a letter to the City Council the ACLU writes:

We have concerns when cities attempt to make it illegal to live in a city because an individual does not have a home. Moreover, we understand that Fresno City Council is now considering adopting this proposed ordinance that criminalizes camping on public and private property within the City limits. Council member Brandau, the author of the proposed ordinance, explained this was a direct response to homeless individuals in Fresno.

The United States Supreme Court explained that it is unconstitutional to criminalize status like homelessness that “may be contracted innocently or involuntarily.” Robinson vs California, 370 U.S. 660, 666-67 (1962)

In Jones vs City of Los Angeles, the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit held that unless a city has sufficient housing for all of it’s residents, it may not prohibit homeless persons from sleeping on public property. The court reasoned that where the homeless population exceeds the number of available shelter beds, homeless persons must by necessity sleep on public property. The court went on to say that simply being homeless or engaging in innocent activity criminalizes “the status of being homeless.” Although the opinion in Jones was moot after the parties decided to settle the case, at least one federal court in the Ninth Circuit has since relied on it to uphold a challenge to an anti-camping law as applied to homeless people, writing that “it seems a reasonable proposition under the Eighth Amendment that homeless persons should not be subject to criminal prosecution for merely sleeping in public at any time of the day.” And courts have held that a city camping ordinance can violate other fundamental constitutional rights.

This proposed ordinance suffer from the same constitutional flaw as those at issue in these other cases. Fresno’s proposed ordinance states that “it is unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities, or use camp paraphernalia” § 10-1702. The proposed ordinance’s language regarding camping includes innocent activity such as “temporarily sleeping.” § 10-1701. Individuals could face up to six months in jail among other sentencing that would criminalize homeless individual’s status under this proposed ordinance. § 10-1703. We are raising concerns that enforcing this proposed law against homeless people could violate the United States Constitution.

In Kincaid, Judge Wagner explained that:

The shelter available for homeless persons in the City of Fresno is substantially less than the need for that shelter. The existing overnight facility beds for individuals and families seeking shelter overflow daily, and there is significant shortage of available overnight homeless shelter beds on a daily basis in Fresno.
Kincaid v. City of Fresno, 2006 WL 3542732 at *3 (E.D. Cal. 2006).

The City of Fresno has not offered any explanation as to where numerous homeless individuals are supposed to live. The City also heard from many homeless individuals when it introduced the ordinance that Fresno’s homeless population does not have alternatives regarding where to live.

If Fresno City Council decides to adopt this proposed ordinance that still criminalizes being homeless, the City may violate the Eighth Amendment and other fundamental constitutional protections. For these reasons, we urge Fresno City Council not to adopt this harmful ordinance.

Rhodes has responded by calling for a campout at City Hall:

The homeless No Camping ordinance in Fresno will be implemented on Friday, September 29, 2017. At that time Fresno Police officers will be authorized to arrest homeless people who sleep on public or private property, effectively criminalizing homelessness. After arrest, homeless people will face a $1,000 fine and 6 months in jail.

I believe this is a pivotal moment in Fresno’s approach to homelessness. How we respond when the authorities come after the homeless and drag them to jail one at a time will say a lot about who we are and what we do when confronted with injustice, intolerance and a city government engaged in immoral conduct that violates basic human rights.

We must not be silent as homeless people (our brothers and sisters) are punished for the crime of being too poor to afford a home.

This is the time for everyone who believes in social and economic justice to draw a line in the sand and City Hall is where we need to focus. If 100 people committed Civil Disobedience by protesting this morally bankrupt law it would make an important statement. If 1,000 people committed themselves to camping out at City Hall that night it might force the city to ignore the law (rather than arrest us all).

Let me know if there are enough people in Fresno to “make a statement” that homeless people should be treated with dignity and respect, by getting 100 people to attend this event.

Alternatively, if you want to stop the City of Fresno from implementing this ordinance, we need 1,000 people to attend this event who are willing to bring their tent and sleeping bag to City Hall on Friday, September 29 starting at 9 p.m.

Your participation in this event will directly impact the city’s homeless policy and how the homeless are treated in this community.

You can join the event page for the protest here: Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless