Monday, August 1, 2011

Assembly Bill 312: advancing the civil rights of the homeless

As Assembly Bill 312 wends its way through the system with revisions and approvals, it finally made its way to the desk of California Governor Jerry Brown on July 25 for his signature, but tragedy could not wait for new civil rights to be afforded to the downtrodden.

AB 312 is a civil rights bill making hate crimes against the homeless a violation of their civil rights by recognizing this growing tide of humanity as a distinct group against whom any abuse targeting their homelessness is a “hate crime”.

But the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless schizophrenic at the hands of Fullerton Police on July 5 has brought new awareness of the deadly attitudes stalking the homeless. To be honest the Bill may not have given Thomas any greater protection because revision made to the Bill while in consideration was written into AB 312, exempting law enforcement personnel from its requirements.

Kelly Thomas however, has given a face to the homeless. Thomas was beaten by Fullerton police while he resisted arrest for questioning for car break-ins and robberies. He is believed to have been ‘off his meds’ at the time. He went into a coma and died five days later. Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas was at his side but Kelly never regained consciousness before dying.

Assembly Bill 312 specifically adds homeless persons to the list of individuals protected from violence and intimidation under the Ralph Civil Rights Act. By adding homeless persons as a protected class, they would have the ability to bring a civil action for damages, attorney fees, and other appropriate relief if there is an infringement of their rights. It also provides a comprehensive definition of a "homeless person."

The author of this bill, Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach has indicated that on a national level, there has been an increase in violence towards homeless people. A report entitled, "America’s Growing Tide of Violence," notes that California has the second-highest rate of violence against homeless persons in the nation:

"There are an estimated 157,000 homeless people in California, perhaps the most vulnerable population in the state. Of those 30,000 are veterans. The homeless are more likely to suffer from mental and physical illness, and less likely to receive medical treatment. Even worse, they are the population most likely to be the target of violent attacks. In the last year alone, homeless people have been set on fire, stabbed, shot, and beaten with baseball bats."

Assemblymember Lowenthal from her office in Sacramento stated today “You don’t give up your rights just because you don’t have a home,” she said. “Nor do you stop being a person whose life is valuable. You would think everybody already knows that, but, sadly, they don’t.”

Among the supporters of AB312 is NAMI California (National Alliance on Mental Illness). In a letter of support for AB312 Frances Tibbits, Chair of NAMI California Legislative Workgroup states “Many people with mental illness suffer homelessness, through lack of treatment and our society’s lack of commitment to treatment and shelter for all.

“It is not a crime to be homeless, yet crimes are increasing against people of this status. It is very reasonable that homelessness should be a named status for which people shall not be subject to violence or intimidation. Existing law lists the following named protected statuses: political affiliation, sex, race, color, religion, marital status, sexual orientation or position in a labor dispute. Some can be changed, some cannot, but all are deemed worthy of named protection. People who are homeless deserve that protection.”

There are no opponents to the bill. Governor Brown has until August 25 to sign the bill. Californians can let Governor Brown know their views regarding AB312 by contacting him at

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