Human Rights Fair Spotlights Homeless
Activists at Saturday's human
rights fair raises awareness
about global injustices and reveals
new city ordinances affecting
The third annual Human Rights Fair featured food, crafts, music and tables manned all day Saturday by some 15 rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Resource Center for Nonviolence and the Haiti Initiative, which is run by UC Santa Cruz students.
The fair is put on by the local chapter of the United Nations Association (UNA), which charged non-student groups $10 to run a table and $45 to sell crafts at the Galleria.
Asked whether there are human rights violations here in Santa Cruz, an UNA spokeswoman said yes and pointed to the so-called "sleeping ban."
This city ordinance, passed last June, makes sleeping outside between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. a ticket-able offense.
"In Santa Cruz, there are many homeless people, services and facilities, but very often not enough. We think that the sleeping ban should be eliminated until they [homeless people] actually have facilities," said Pat Arnold, president of the Santa Cruz County chapter of the UNA.
Arnold says the sleeping ban violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international treaty signed by the U.S. on Dec. 10, 1948, in the wake of World War II. The anniversary of that event is celebrated around the world each year as Human Rights Day.
"The United States has ratified this treaty, which codifies it into law," says Arnold. "So on a local level, we should be abiding by the declaration."
Technically, she's right.
According to the Constitution, international laws signed by the U.S. are the supreme law of the land—meaning they trump laws set at federal, state, county or city levels. At least one lawyer, Ann Fagan Ginger of Berkeley, has taken the matter to court. In practice, however, international law is rarely—if ever—given priority.
Human Rights Fair.
The passage of the UN Declaration relating to the homeless ban, found in Article 25, states:
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services."
As Arnold sees it, a right to "housing" means a right to have a place to sleep—and if you are homeless, that includes sleeping outside.
"We decided in our board that it [Article 25] applies to the sleeping ban," she says. "Housing means a place to sleep, and that's how most people look at it. In fact, the law says that the people who are ticketed are not fined, if on that day there were no beds available in local shelters. But they still have to go through the whole process of being ticketed and going to jail and being fined."
Becky Johnson, a member of Homeless United for Freedom and Friendship (HUFF), which had a table at the fair, describes the homeless ban as "insidious" and part of a wider attack on homeless people.
"On the top burner of HUFF today is the criminalization of homelessness," says Johnson, who spent three years on the board of the Citizen's Committee, now the Homeless Services Center. "It's the tendency by a lot of local governments with a lot of little petty ordinances to make all the things that homeless people do in the course of their day illegal, whether they sit on the sidewalk, whether they beg for spare change, whether they lie down in an public place or cover up with a blanket, or sleep at night."
When homeless people try to sleep in parks at night, she says, they are slapped with a double fine, one for sleeping in public and one for trespassing in a closed park. As a result, homeless people often are up all night.
"They're extremely exhausted, so they go there [to parks] in the daytime to sleep, but then people go, 'Oh, look at those lazy homeless people lying around,'" Johnson says. "Well, let them sleep at night, and they'll probably be doing a lot better, looking for a job in the daytime or finding housing or getting back into programs or school. Most homeless people do get back into housing."
The average length of homelessness in the city is four months, according to the 2009 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census, conducted by United Way. At that time, there were 2,265 homeless people in the county, down 20 percent from 2007.
Other ordinances that make life unnecessarily difficult for homeless people, according to Johnson, include bans for the following activities—lying on benches, playing guitar within 10 feet of a statue, sitting on public property not "customarily used" for sitting and loitering in public parking garages.
A homeless man visiting the HUFF table said the ordinances are part of a push to gentrify Santa Cruz.
"They've eliminated all the housing and jobs around here that normal people do and expect that everybody is just going to go away," said Lee, who gave only his first name. "It doesn't work like that."
Lee has been without a home for the last five years. "Basically," he said, "this town is on an unviable path toward gentrification."