Homeless laws in California and Bay Area explained

In California, there are hundreds of “anti-homeless” laws. Although there is nothing that specifically bans or restricts homelessness, cities in the Golden State have created nearly a thousand codes and ordinances that experts and homeless advocates argue disproportionately affect unsheltered people.

One such ordinance - known as the "sit-lie" law - makes it a criminal offense to sit, lie or sleep on a public sidewalk anywhere in a city.

In 2015, under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest for Bell v. City of Boise et al, a case brought by homeless plaintiffs who were convicted under Boise ordinances that criminalized sleeping or camping in public. The DOJ argued making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there are no other housing options, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.

Three years later, a federal judge struck down the Boise, Idaho law saying, "As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people ...on the false premise they had a choice in the matter."

Still, cities like Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose have found ways to keep their sit-lie ordinances. For instance, San Francisco police can enforce them but only during the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. 

"California has a lot more laws than other states," said Professor Jeff Selbin with UC Berkeley's Policy Advocacy Clinic. He said these laws are, at best, ineffective at addressing homelessness. 

"Unfortunately, what may be a good fix to move that person from your street or put boulders on your sidewalk for example is not going to solve the [bigger] problem," Selbin said. 

Executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness Jennifer Friedenbach said, not only are the laws ineffective, they make the situation worse. 

"The laws that go after homeless people exacerbate homelessness typically everywhere that they're used. People can't get in touch with their social workers because they're being moved from place to place," she said.

A 2016 report by San Francisco budget analysts supports Friedenbach's claim. The analysts found "enforcement of quality of life measures was too expensive." In 2015, San Francisco spend $20.6 million responding to and enforcing homeless-related calls. During that time, the number of homeless people did not go down. In fact, it got worse increasing by 16% from 2011 to 2015.

2 Investigates learned some cities are showing signs of less enforcement. Data obtained from court records shows San Francisco "quality of life" citations are down. They dropped from 15,800 in 2016 to 10,200 in 2017 to 8,600 in 2018. Oakland "sit-lie" citation numbers are also down. 

Not every city tracks this kind of information. Selbin said, if you see a low citation count, it may even be misleading.

"What we've seen is a lot of cities stop enforcement of certain laws and start enforcing other ones," he said. 

Both Friedenbach and Selbin said California is a long way from finding a meaningful solution to homelessness. Friedenbach said she is sympathetic to the frustrations felt by homeowners and businessowners. She recommends not calling police to deal with a homeless-related situation, but rather contact an agency that is better suited to helping the individual. For instance: 

  • Mobile Crisis (for individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis) (415) 970-7000
  • St. Vincent de Paul at 525 5th Street in San Francisco or 2272 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland (510) 6387600
  • Mental Health and Substance Abust Treatment at 1380 Howard Street in San Francisco (510) 638-7600
  • Alameda County Homeless Action Center at 2601 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland (510) 695-2260