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A Target for Centuries : O.C. Anti-Camping Laws Not the First Aimed at Homeless

August 30, 1992|MARY HELEN BERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here's a solution to homelessness: Round up bag ladies, beggars and anyone with a sign that says "Homeless: please help." Brand each with an "H" and banish them to work camps.

Sound drastic?

Not in 16th-Century England, where vagabonds caught wandering were branded with a "V," returned to their hometowns and enslaved for two years.

Vagrants, transients, hobos. The story of the homeless and society's solutions for dealing with the "wandering poor" bridges centuries. And it's details like these that Harry Simon, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, has been gathering.

Wednesday, he and more than 20 lawyers and a half-dozen legal and civil rights organizations throughout Southern California are expected to announce lawsuits against five cities--Orange, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Long Beach and Santa Barbara--that have recently passed ordinances prohibiting camping on public property.

They charge that the ordinances are the latest attempts by local governments to deal with an increasingly unruly problem: the doubling in the last five years of Orange County's homeless population.

The advocates will argue that the new laws are unconstitutional because they discriminate against the homeless, restrict transients' right to travel, are too vague to follow or enforce fairly, and would punish the homeless for simply being homeless.

City officials have denied that the camping ordinances are aimed at the homeless or any particular group.

"The ordinance applies to everybody," said Edward J. Cooper, city attorney of Santa Ana, where the ordinance becomes effective this week.

Cooper disagrees with the charge that the ordinances are unconstitutional.

"There are cases that uphold these kinds of ordinances both at the state level and the United States Supreme Court level," he said.

The new ordinance was adopted, Cooper said, "because there has been numerous instances of people camping on public property, including sidewalks and streets."

But the advocates say the laws are a deliberate attempt by cities to insulate themselves from the growing problem of homelessness.

"The camping laws are part of the same legacy," Simon said. "I think they are designed much as vagrancy laws were designed to deter the displaced poor from wandering into these cities."

The attempt by officials to use legislation to manage the homeless, represents "a continuation of a historical attitude that people are afraid of the poor," Simon said.

Drawing on at least 50 years of legal precedent and centuries of social history, the lawsuits will cite cases that have helped dismantle vagrancy laws and other government efforts to control the homeless.

"Clearly (the anti-camping laws) aren't as severe as branding people, or making them slaves or putting them to death," said Simon, author of "Towns Without Pity" an academic article that documents historic efforts to drive the homeless from American cities and provides both research and strategy for the coming lawsuits.

"But they are an extension of laws you saw 30, 40 years ago. . . . There was a 'Not In My Back Yard' component as far back as the 17th Century, and (these government policies) reflect hostility to the poor and suspicion of individuals living on the streets."

For example, during the 16th Century, Simon said, a large new population of wandering poor was created when peace in England left soldiers without a cause, sharp population growth left workers unemployed and an entire class of tenant farmers was expelled from their land to make room for grazing sheep.

In a crude effort to protect society from crimes that this new class of wanderers might commit, English King Edward VI passed the 1547 Slavery Act that could punish an entire class of displaced workers. This early vagrancy law allowed vagabonds to be captured, branded and enslaved. Those who attempted escape faced permanent slavery. Another escape attempt meant certain death.

Elizabeth I eventually developed a series of statutes created to deal with the poor, the Elizabethan Poor Laws. One of her laws, the 1597 Act for Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars, certainly would have cleared Venice Beach of dozens who ply their trade on the boardwalk each day. The law promised corporal punishment for con men, panhandlers, fortunetellers, jugglers and tinkerers and "all able-bodied loiterers refusing to work."

In Colonial America, policies toward vagabonds were a bit more lenient because "everybody in the New World was a wanderer," said Robert Slayton, Chapman University historian and co-author of "New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel" (Temple University Press).

But taking their cue from England's book of law, most colonies soon adopted laws of "settlement and removal" which gave authorities the power to deport any newcomer who could not prove he had a job waiting or a trade to practice.

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