On Gideon's Anniversary: Legal Rights for the Homeless

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Homeless people from Skid Row are seen on the streets around a construction project where102
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 11: Homeless people from Skid Row are seen on the streets around a construction project where102 prefabricated housing units placed on top of the second floor of Star Apartments are being built December 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The modular homes will become the first multi unit prefabricated homes in Los Angeles for formerly homeless and impoverished people. Despite efforts from the Federal Government and local officials to provide more shelters and beds for homeless people, the number of people living on the streets remained unchanged from January 2011 to January 2012. The number of homeless families increased while the number of veterans on the street decreased. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

We just passed the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court ruling about legal representation for the poor but few of the people who wrote to celebrate Gideon v. Wainwright mentioned the poorest of the poor: people who are homeless.

As much as anyone, homeless people need access to lawyers. Why? Because our society has written dozens of laws aimed at criminalizing their behavior. With my AB 5, the Homeless Persons Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, I'm trying to address that.

Let's look at how things work today.

It's highly unlikely that you or I will ever get a ticket for obstructing a sidewalk. That privilege generally goes to homeless people who have the nerve to sleep or rest on a public sidewalk, when they have nowhere else to go.

But let's just say I did get such a ticket. After a short wait, I'd get a notice in the mail of how to pay the fine or how to contest the citation. And I would take care of it.

If you don't have a home, though, where does that notice go? I'm not sure, but it can't be mailed to you without an address. If you don't get the notice, you don't know where to go to deal with it. If you don't deal with it, prosecutors may get a warrant for your arrest.

Next time you commit the "crime" of sitting on the sidewalk, you could be arrested and spend time in jail.

That's basically what happened to Gary Williams, a homeless San Francisco man who was hauled off to jail after being found sleeping -- twice! -- while sitting on a milk crate on the sidewalk. He was charged with public nuisance, unauthorized lodging and obstructing a sidewalk. He must have been having some disruptive dreams.

Williams spent 30 days in jail and then went to court. He was lucky enough to have a public defender ready to challenge the charges, but the district attorney was threatening Williams with two years in jail. Williams pleaded guilty to one charge to avoid more jail time.

That wasn't the end of it. He was also banned from going back to the area where he had lived. Guess what will happen if he violates that, or gets some new sleeping citation? How likely is he to find housing or a job with a court record? The deck is stacked against him now.

Ideally, we should be trying to provide services for people who have no shelter, before we ticket and arrest them. That's what my bill, the Homeless Persons Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, is all about. We know mental health services, addiction services, job assistance are all better investments of public money than jail time. Let's stop trying to put the homeless in jail.

But if we are going to ticket homeless people for things like resting or sleeping -- things that they can't help doing -- we need to give them better legal representation.

Part of that is improving resources for public defenders. According to the SF Public Defender's office, half of all defender's offices are operating with a quarter or less of the staff they should have to handle their caseloads.

The other thing we can is give them an earlier shot at resolving legal issues before they escalate. Not only is that more fair, it is going to be cheaper than putting them in jail or using up impacted court resources.

That's why my bill calls for providing representation for the homeless defendant at any step that the prosecutors use a lawyer in court against him or her.

In the spirit of the Gideon decision, we need to assure that our poorest citizens get a fair shot at our legal system, because being homeless should not be a crime.