There Oughta Be a Law – II

On Jan 13, 8 intrepid people met at Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View for a Policy Cafe, to consider the 6 policies (see this earlier post) which Transitioners had proposed to submit to Senator Jerry Hill’s There Oughta Be a Law contest in the name of Transition Palo Alto.  After the ingestion of many beverages and some serious discussion, it was decided to submit the proposal submitted by Paul Higgins, which proposes regulating homeless encampments in a manner that gives people who are homeless more of a chance at stability and recovery.  After applying some spit and polish, the following proposal was e-mailed to Senator Hill’s office.  (As of this writing, Feb 7, we have not heard back about the proposal.  Senators have until Feb 17 to submit bills for consideration.)


Name: Paul Higgins and Peter Ruddock for Transition Palo Alto

Transition Palo Alto is a citizens’ group dedicated to creating a strong local economy and a resilient community as a strategy to counter climate change and create a better life for all in Palo Alto and the surrounding area.

Providing Stability for the Homeless Community Act


There oughta be a law: regulating homeless encampments. It is obvious that shelters and indoor living are not an immediate solution for every homeless person, given the diversity of mental illnesses, the lack of housing, and the safety issues with many shelters. There seems to be a ‘war on the homeless’ currently. Many recent laws criminalize homelessness, and every time an encampment springs up, police wait until it is well established and then tear it all down and clear it out- but to what end? Where are these people supposed to go? Usually the tenants simply move to another site. This game of whack-a-mole that cities seem to be playing with homeless encampments makes it much harder for mental health professionals and other homeless outreach/advocate professionals to treat and serve the homeless community. Outreach programs need stability to work and a managed encampment would provide that.

Certainly it is understandable that jurisdictions are uncomfortable with these encampments, as they generate citizen complaints and can become safety hazards.  But removal is, at best, a temporary solution, as the encampments will spring up again in some other location.  For the problem as a whole, forcing people to move every few months from illegal camp to illegal camp is counter-productive, making the process of (re)gaining a home virtually impossible for most.  We need to give people some stability if they are to have a chance at success.  Jurisdictions need to be empowered to create that stability.

WHAT’S YOUR SOLUTION? Please attach proposed language, if any. Be as detailed as possible, attaching extra sheets if needed.

We should enact a law that legalizes a regulated and managed homeless encampment. This could use vacant/blighted parcels, parks land, or other city or county land, and would include designated camping spots that service users would register for, and be monitored by community police or liaisons. This is what would make the living environment safer than a shelter (which often have insufficient oversight). The involvement of existing local organizations would be sought. Facilities such as trash cans, porta-potties, potable water fountains, showers, and sheet-mulched areas for camping would also be included (ecologically-sound options would be encouraged, such as composting and bioswales to process waste and grey-water, and a garden for service users to grow food). The site would also include mail boxes for service users and act as a drop off point for food bank bags. The area could be re-mulched periodically to maintain sanitary conditions.

The type of housing allowed would be diverse, as long as it was temporary.

While a sunset clause for a planned site is possible, a stipulation that all registered tenants be moved to a new location with equal/greater space/amenities or permanent housing.

This plan could fall under the purview of parks/public works/sheriff/health system, or more sensibly be a combined effort with some capacity/staff time given by each department. As mentioned local organizations would be sought to provide management and support.

A small fee could be charged to service users to offset management costs for the site. This could be 5-10% of income if the service user is on social security, or a few dollars in cash per day if not. In Berkeley, the city often charges a percentage of service users’ income to pay for an apartment.

The plan could function in multiple ways: it could outline a way that a plot can be used in a given way (letting organizations/depts come together organically to start a project); OR the plan could designate that a site(s) of given size be built and specify a budget, staff time from different departments, and make it happen; OR the plan could it take an existing encampment and get it ‘up to code’.

This law is not a solution to end homelessness in our communities. It is a temporary measure to allow people who are already sleeping on our streets somewhere safer to go than a park bench or alleyway. Rather than using the streets and parks for their human needs, this would provide a safer, more hygienic way to take care of those needs. Finally, it provides dignity and a sense of self determination for people who are living on the streets by allowing them to use what ever type of housing or non-housing they wish- in a designated, managed space.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Please include any studies, reports, newspaper articles, personal experience, or anecdotal evidence relating to your proposal.

List of articles/resources (California):

Thesis on Community Development as Solution to Homelessness:

San Jose city plans to use ‘jungle clean-up’ as model for dealing with homeless encampments:

General information about homeless encampments:

Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights Draft:

SF in-depth look at policies and ‘Division St. Encampment’:

Fact sheets:

Other States:

Nashville, Tennesee exploratory meetings on the issue:

Washington DC homeless criminalization:

ARE YOU AWARE OF SIMILAR LEGISLATION PREVIOUSLY INTRODUCED IN CALIFORNIA OR IN OTHER STATES? If so, please include the author, bill number, and outcome of the legislation:

List of related laws (California):

Gilroy legalized encampment proposal:

Nevada County legalized encampment:

Other States:

Seattle draft legislation:

Des Moines, Washington draft legislation:

Portland encampment legalization law:


Each encampment would cost government, whether local, county or state, money, which would likely come from the general tax fund.

Some of this money would be offset by fees charged to users, as outlined in the proposal. Analysis will show that concomitant savings will occur in all jurisdictions from decreased need for policing, decreased blight on land and fewer calls from residents. The net effect on all jurisdictions should be positive, but the financial impact will be felt differently by each jurisdiction.

(AB 551, which gives tax incentives for turning vacant, often blighted, urban land into urban farms and gardens provides an interesting analogy.  It costs the counties (where it is enacted) property taxes for those properties which enroll in the program.  Administrative expenses are mostly offset by application fees, but may also cost the counties some money.  Police will see a big savings by not having to patrol the formerly blighted properties, although some of the problems may simply move elsewhere.  However, the police savings will not necessarily go into the same pot that the property taxes came out of – if financial management is not made then school districts, dependent upon property taxes, will often suffer.  The small enrollment in AB 551 means that we have not seen any meaningful effects yet, although some advocates worry about the possibilities.)


Homeless Advocates, Mental Health Professionals, Social Workers, Food Banks, Churches, Police Departments


Cities / League of California Cities, Homeowners groups (neighbors, NIMBY), Police Departments


4 thoughts on “There Oughta Be a Law – II

  1. Hi Robert,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments- I have added your text to our working document for the proposed bill. When we have the opportunity work on this further, we would love to have you involved in the conversation.

  2. Something else to think about: a way must be found to prevent these encampments from becoming an excuse to do nothing about the homelessness issue. The temptation to sweep the homeless into these camps as if under the proverbial rug will be very great once they open. Therefore the law should include language mandating the creation of affordable housing concurrent to the operation of these camps. Moreover, the camps should be sold to the public at large as way stations between homelessness and housing. This may work to remove the stigma from such camps, as their residents can be portrayed as people taking the first big step towards normalizing their lives.

  3. I think it is vitally important that any law establishing “official encampments” include language banning any attempts by law enforcement or local authorities to make residency in such camps compulsory on pain of citation and/or imprisonment. Otherwise I fear that the temptation to turn these encampments, over time, into de facto concentration camps for the homeless will become too great for local politicians and law enforcement to resist.

    The teeth for such an amendment would be a provision that eases the statutory path for homeless individuals to sue local governments who may attempt to make encampments compulsory. Politicians and law enforcement officials would lose whatever immunity from civil action they may normally enjoy.

    Again, I cannot emphasize enough the great importance of such a proviso to any encampment law. Failure to add such a proviso invites the worst sort of abuses of the homeless populations of the San Francisco Bay Area, not to mention those of any other region of California that may decide to enact such legislation.

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