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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Do not feed the bums

September 08 2010
Rough sleepers = animals? Rough sleepers = animals?
Offensive sticker are counter-productive and leads to fear

The Californian town of Ocean Beach, near San Diego, became the site of controversy in June when a shop owner put up a sign saying 'Don't feed our bums'.

The signs are apparently an attempt to counter 'aggressive' begging on the streets of Ocean Beach, though understandably rough sleepers are concerned about being victimised.

Frank Gormlie, of the local news and views website Ocean Beach Rag, came out strongly against the move. "The stickers are not Ocean Beach," he said. "Ocean Beach is a more tolerant community than these stickers represent."

Local shop The Black, which sells cannabis-related products, has apparently already sold over 500 of the stickers (pictured in the local press), which are a parody of US national parks signs warning visitors not to feed bears.

Critics point out that this implicitly compares rough sleepers to wild animals. Moreover, the signs also contribute to hostility towards homeless people. Jon Baker, a rough sleeper from the area, said: "It does put us more as a target because it has stirred up a lot of interest."

Peter Callstrom, executive director of the San Diego Regional Task Force On the Homeless, said: "The sticker is completely offensive and counter-productive. People who are homeless are not bums. Name-calling helps no one and only leads to divisiveness, fear, and disdain."

However, this is part of a trend stretching back more than a decade. In November 1994, voters in Berkeley in northern California passed Measure O, a set of laws reminiscent of our own controversial Vagrancy Act. One law banned 'aggressive' begging, and the other banning sitting or lying on the pavement, although, on that occasion, the law was backed up by provisions for social spending on rough sleepers.

The new laws then became the basis of a legal battle. The American Civil Liberties Union managed to get the law halted by a judge in 1995, only to see another court overturn the decision in 1996.

Brent Halvarstat, a rough sleeper in the area, said that the law was a clear breach of civil rights. "An anti-panhandling law would be a clear violation of our first amendment rights," he said, stressing it would prevent many people from asking -and therefore getting - what they need to survive.