The Problem . . .
Every day, millions of Americans struggle to live despite income levels that fall far short of subsistence. In any given year, approximately 1.5 million Americans will experience life without an address or basic shelter. For one of the richest countries on earth, this is inexcusable.
Yet, for the unhoused, lack of income is only the beginning. On a daily basis, those without homes find themselves interrogated, searched, cited, and arrested for "status" offenses - crimes unique to the unhoused. They are charged with sleeping in public places, panhandling, trespassing on city property, creating a public nuisance, disturbing the peace, and other such offenses - all for activities necessary to their basic survival.
Of course, the harms resulting from such charges are bad enough, including outrageous fines and the possibility of jail time. However, the damage does not stop there. If you cannot pay your fines, or are physically unable to appear in court, your case will be listed as "failure to pay" or "failure to appear". The next step is more fines, suspension of your driver's license, and even a warrant for your arrest. The result is a deep, dark hole with no perceivable bottom.
California is home to approximately one-fourth of the nation's unhoused. Among these are people who started out in all walks of life and became homeless as the result of a wide range of problems, but are now treated as second-class citizens at the hands of police and their fellow community members. They are hassled, rousted, and cited, not for having done something wrong, but because of who they are and how they are forced to live.
The Solution . . .
Obviously, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to the problems facing the unhoused, but we must start somewhere. When facing criminal charges or infraction citations, outcomes are almost always better if you have an attorney. Attorneys identify flaws in the government's case, protect important constitutional rights, negotiate better plea deals, and give defendants advice, allowing them to make informed decisions.
This site is just the beginning of an effort to intervene in the criminalization of homelessness. The unhoused cannot afford to hire attorneys, public defenders are overworked and underpaid, and defendants in infraction (ticket) cases are not eligible for a public defender or court-appointed attorney. Thus, it falls to the private defense bar to step up and take a share of the responsibility. Attorneys affiliated with Homeless Criminal Defense (HCD) provide pro bono (free of charge) representation to the unhoused in their communities.
If you are unhoused and need help with a criminal charge or ticket related to your status, click here to contact us.
This effort started in Palo Alto, with the August 2013 passage of the vehicle habitation ordinance, a municipal law making it illegal to live in a car, truck, or RV. Despite a significant public outcry, the City passed the ordinance and took other simultaneous steps to criminalize homelessness and drive the unhoused out of town. At the meeting where the ordinance passed, a number of local attorneys stood up and told the City Council that the law was unconstitutional and would not survive scrutiny, but these declarations fell on deaf ears. It may be a long time before that particular legal battle is fought and won, but the ordinance is just one of many. This effort is aimed at reaching the larger body of unhoused who are affected by cruel and inhumane anti-homeless laws.
For now, this is a Bay Area project, but we hope that a good idea will spread! If you are an attorney or other legal professional interested in participating, or if you want to make a financial contribution to help with fines, court costs, or other litigation expenses for one of our unhoused clients, please click here to contact us.