California Assembly Approves Protection for Homeless

Californians’ civil right to be homeless would be given new legal protection under legislation approved Thursday by the Assembly.

Basically, the measure would deem violence against homeless people or their property as a hate crime for civil litigation.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal said her proposal would crack down on beatings, stabbings and shootings that target an extremely vulnerable population.

“There is just a tremendous amount of violence perpetrated against homeless people because they are easy prey,” Lowenthal said.

The measure, Assembly Bill 2706, would add homelessness to civil rights protections for victims of violence based on race, color, religion, sex, marital status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or involvement in a labor dispute.

Fatal attacks against Californians living or sleeping on the streets in recent years have included the stabbing last month of Bernice Nickson, 68, while she slept on a downtown Sacramento bench, and the burning of John Robert McGraham, 55, who was set afire in Los Angeles two years ago.

AB 2706 would not enhance criminal penalties for attacking a homeless person, but victims who sue would be eligible for additional compensation that includes a $25,000 civil penalty and exemplary damages. Approved 46-21, it now goes to the Senate.

Republicans opposed the bill, contending it could clog the courts with frivolous or marginal lawsuits and that there is no proof that higher civil penalties would lead to fewer attacks.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, characterized homelessness as a lifestyle rather than a race, sex, skin color or other trait over which Californians have no control.

If California singles out homelessness for extra legal protection, Adams said, should it not consider single mothers, anti-war protesters or other lifestyles for similar protections?

The bottom line is that all crime victims deserve equal protection under the law, said Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Roseville. “I think we should look at all crime as very serious in nature and prosecute them at an equal level,” Gaines said.

AB 2706 defines a homeless person as one who lacks a residence or lives in shelters, welfare hotels, transitional housing, institutions or other such temporary accommodations.

John Kraintz, a homeless man and leader of an advocacy group, Safe Ground, applauded AB 2706 but said one of his homeless friends was stabbed to death and “no amount of money is going to bring him back.”

“The homeless are often people who nobody cares about, so right off the bat, (offenders) are thinking that there’s not going to be a lot of retribution if they’re caught,” Kraintz said.