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Richmond bans in-car sleeping
December 13, 2001
Law targets homeless in trailers, open spaces

Oakland Tribune
By Kristin Bender

RICHMOND -- This week, Richmond joined the ranks of urban, California cities that have banned sleeping outdoors in an attempt to rid their streets of homeless people.

And already, Bay Area homeless advocates are calling the action inhumane and heartless.

The ordinance, prompted by complaints from homeowners in the city's upscale Marina Bay neighborhood and from business owners near the Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, allows police to issue citations up to $100 to people who sleep inside trailers or cars, or on city streets, parking lots or open spaces.

The Richmond City Council approved the ordinance on a 7-1 vote, despite opponents' efforts to have it modified to allow homeless people to live in their cars longer than the 72-hour limit.

"It's just appalling how many people are homeless, and this is a large, minority community that has a large number of people who are poor or homeless by no fault of their own," said Terry Messman, editor of the Street Spirit newspaper, which is sold by homeless and low-income people. "I think it's sickening that this city would not understand that."

Messman, who said Richmond deserved the "Ebenezer Scrooge Award" for passing the ban right before Christmas, noted San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and several other large California cities also have laws banning sleeping in public places.

"It's shockingly inhumane. Christmas is the one time when the homeless expect the general public to care a little more. To unleash the police on homeless people at Christmas defies logic," Messman said.

The ban won't take effect until early next year.

Richmond Vice Mayor Tom Butt, who was instrumental in directing the city to find money for additional shelter beds, said, "We can't guarantee everybody a place to sleep. It's a problem that certainly the city of Richmond is not going to solve."

With a Bay Area homeless population estimated at 60,000 to 70,000 and a waiting list of at least 400 for a shelter bed in Contra Costa County, homeless advocates said there is clearly a need for places to bunk down.

"It's not the homeless that's the problem, it's people who want to camp out in their campers. The homeless are being blamed, the homeless are being criminalized because people didn't sit down to work on this effort together," said Duane Chapman, a member of the Richmond Human Relations Commission and Contra Costa County's homeless ombudsperson.

'Appalling ban'

Homeless advocates said Richmond's ban is even more appalling because the city has never put enough public resources into shelters, independent living facilities or meal programs.

But the ordinance might actually help change that.

The council approved the ordinance with several conditions. It directed the city to use $80,000 in city money to fund 25 additional beds in a West County homeless shelter. Current funding only supports 75 beds, said Richmond spokeswoman Angela Jones.

Camping area

The city also will work with the county to create a bare-bones camping area for people who need to live in their cars because they have left a violent housing situation or are just passing through. People can sleep in a car for up to 72 hours in any three-month period without a penalty.

The ordinance also requires city staff members to work with the county on grants for transitional housing. And it asks staff to report back in 30 days on how police will enforce the sleeping ban.

"The city's position is it's a regional social issue, we will do our part, but we can't be expected to solve it," said Jones, who added that enforcing the ordinance is "not going to be a priority for the police department." Several high ranking police officials did not return calls Wednesday for comment.