Sleeping Outside Is Not Voluntary Conduct: The Homeless Fight Back

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Homeless in Manteca. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Fighting back against clueless city officials who evidently believe homelessness should be even more difficult so it won't seem so enticing to so many, several homeless men are suing Manteca, CA. for inhumane new ordinances banning encampments, sleeping outside in any makeshift shelter or urination in public - even as the city shuts down public bathrooms - to drive off growing numbers of homeless people. The ordinances passed last year in Manteca - which also allow police to break up said encampments - are part of a wave of Dickensian laws by almost 200 cities aimed at criminalizing homelessness and the desperate poverty that causes it. Today, there are laws preventing poor people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk, having possessions with them, and sleeping in public or their cars; there's probably someone working on a law banning the poor from existing, but they're keeping a low profile. At least 13 cities have also passed laws hassling other people from helping those less fortunate than themselves.

Federal courts, advocacy groups, Brave New Films, the ACLU and several California cities under the plaintive "Right To Rest" rubric have pushed back against such criminalization, but the laws - and the homeless - keep coming. Manteca's ordinances came after years of often tone-deaf public debate about how to deal with the homeless - many residents argue most are "bad" and just want to get rich off panhandling - and charges of police brutality against them. At the time of the laws' passage, Manteca's police chief said their aim was to "correct the wrong" of homeless people being in their pristine midst, and "if the correction (means the homeless) leaving Manteca, then that’s their choice.” Actually, not, say four homeless men, who have filed suit against the city charging, "We are being harassed for being homeless." Their suit says the policies violate their constitutional rights and have “the discriminatory purpose of driving the homeless from the city.” It adds, entirely sensibly, that "sleeping outside is not voluntary conduct." Explains Mario Acosta, one of the plaintiffs, “Sometimes things happen and people fall off their feet (but) I shouldn’t be arrested and dragged off" - for, in effect, being human. The fact that he has to explain that is, obviously, a crime in itself. 

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