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San Mateo County Bans Public Camping

By Maggie LaBarge

SAN MATEO, CA – On Tuesday, January 23rd, supervisors in San Mateo County voted in favor of criminalizing public camping when space in shelters is available. 

Although they faced backlash from civil rights groups and advocacy groups for people experiencing homelessness, supervisors unanimously agreed. The law states that if a person has refused available temporary housing, they cannot live in encampments.

The law allows a person 72 hours to accept assistance with the possibility of two written warnings during this time. If the time elapses and they still do not wish to take a bed, local police can issue misdemeanor citations. 

Before receiving a written warning, officials must conduct a mental health screening. Furthermore, when a person is given a misdemeanor citation, they must go through diversion programs like mental health court. 

In San Mateo County, around 40 unhoused people die per year. The purpose of this law is to remove the issue of refusal of assistance when it comes to shelter and decrease the number of deaths occurring. 

Some worry this will only criminalize homelessness; however, officials say it is not the intention to criminalize people but to help those who may not think they need assistance. 

Officials reported 30 unused beds in shelters across San Mateo County, while there are over 40 living in encampments. 

Citations will not be issued to those living in encampments when shelters are at capacity. They are meant to be deterrents rather than used frequently. 

San Mateo is not the first to pass legislation of this nature; Los Angeles, Sacramento, Houston, and Boston are examples of cities with similar laws. 

However, many are still very displeased with this new mandate. They describe it as punishing people for experiencing homelessness.

Community members have expressed concern about forcing people into shelters where they may only receive shelter during the night and will have nowhere to stay during the day, whereas encampments provide shelter all day. With this, some rules may make residents feel restricted. 

The law is expected to go into effect sometime this week. 

Resources used:

https://www.kqed.org/news/11973307/san-mateo-county-supes-vote-to-criminalize-camping-in-unincorporated-areas

https://www.kalw.org/bay-area-news/2024-01-31/new-san-mateo-county-ordinance-criminalizes-sleeping-outside#

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2024-01-27/refusing-shelter-bed-in-san-mateo-county-could-soon-be-a-crime#:~:text=Under%20the%20measure%2C%20which%20goes,mind%2C%20receiving%20two%20written%20warnings.

https://www.smcgov.org/ceo/news/board-approves-new-approach-encourage-unhoused-residents-illegal-encampments-accept

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