SANTA ANA--In observance of World Homelessness Day, the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) announces the launch of its Dignity for All Project to address civil and human rights issues arising from homelessness. In any given year, Orange County, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, is home to thousands of people forced to live and sleep on the streets because they cannot obtain housing or shelter.
Through the Dignity for All Project, ACLU SoCal staff will advocate for needed policy changes to prevent and end homelessness in the county–including expanding access to emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing, and medical care and opposing the criminalization of homelessness.
Heather Maria Johnson, staff attorney for the ACLU SoCal’s Orange County office, heads the new project. She comes to the ACLU with a wealth of experience on protecting homeless persons’ civil rights. She worked previously at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington, DC, where she successfully challenged local government and law enforcement practices criminalizing homelessness, such as ordinances prohibiting sleeping in public, panhandling or sharing food with homeless individuals. She looks forward to serving as a resource for local governments and community members.
“People never choose to be homeless,” said Heather Maria Johnson. “Orange County is home to Disneyland, the happiest place on earth. Sadly, thousands of people live in misery and despair in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The Dignity for All Project will shine a bright light on the vast inequality of living conditions.”
While county officials recognize the extent of the homelessness problem, the county is missing critical services such as year-round emergency shelters and sufficient permanent supportive housing. "Not-in-my-backyard" opposition from community members recently scuttled plans to build a year-round shelter in Fullerton. Advocates are awaiting news of a proposed location. Meanwhile, despite the lack of shelter, cities in Orange County often cite or arrest homeless persons engaging in necessary activities–like sleeping in public. This costly practice burdens law enforcement and the criminal justice system by perpetuating homelessness because it makes it more difficult for people living on the streets to secure housing, employment and benefits. The most recent example of this trend is the City of Anaheim, which has proposed an ordinance to prohibit camping without any limits on enforcement when shelter is unavailable.
“Human beings should not have to sleep on sidewalks or in parks and face criminal penalties because they are homeless,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of the ACLU SoCal’s Orange County office. “Everyone deserves a safe place to live.”
Media Contact: Diana Rubio or Vicki Fox, 213.977.5252