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New San Mateo County ordinance criminalizes sleeping outside

Homeless person's tent in a public park.
Michael Gabelmann
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Flickr / Creative Commons
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Last week, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors approved a new ordinance that makes it illegal for homeless people in unincorporated areas of the county to live outside — if they have refused offers to move indoors.

The new ordinance, entitled “Hopeful Horizons: Empowering Lives,” says homeless people can be cited with a misdemeanor if they have received two written warnings, and declined two offers of shelter.

The new ordinance, entitled “Hopeful Horizons: Empowering Lives,” says homeless people can be cited with a misdemeanor if they have received two written warnings, and declined two offers of shelter.

“There are people in those encampments that just don’t, for whatever reason, will not get off the street,” says Supervisor Warren Slocum.

Slocum says the charges are intended to get to those who are the hardest to reach.

“Those people refuse to leave, and they refuse any care or treatment that I think they desperately need. So, we figured the way to do it, to encourage those people, it’s really meant to encourage people, was as a last resort, the court process," says Slocum. 

Slocum, who is Vice President of the Board, says that anyone who is cited with a misdemeanor under the ordinance will automatically qualify for diversion programs offered by the Superior Court. These programs are intended to help people avoid jail time, and expunge their records of the misdemeanor charges.

But advocates argue that criminal charges are not an effective way to move people off the streets. They say San Mateo’s new law will only further rupture trust with unhoused people.

While many California cities limit where and how homeless people can sleep outside, the new San Mateo County ordinance seems to go further than any other law in the state.

In 2021, Los Angeles banned encampments in certain parts of the city. But violators only receive a citation, not a criminal charge. And in 2022, Sacramento made it a misdemeanor for homeless people to block the sidewalk along the American River Parkway, or in other areas of “critical infrastructure.” But those misdemeanor charges are limited to specific areas, and do not apply to the city as a whole.

Officials say there are eight known encampments in unincorporated San Mateo County, which are home to about 44 people. They also note that the county has between 15 and 30 unused shelter beds every night, with more on the way.

Though the ordinance has been signed into law, officials say it will not take effect for a few more months.

Alastair Boone is the Co-Editor in Chief of Street Spirit newspaper, and a member of KALW's 2024 Audio Academy.