Guide to Laws Related to Homelessness in California

Street people, houseless, unhoused, transients, vagrants – people without homes are often called many things, though hopefully we are moving away from more derogatory terms like “hobos” or “bums.” Homelessness is clearly a major (and growing) problem in California. Laws aimed at dealing with the activities of homeless people are often called “vagrancy laws” or “anti-vagrancy laws,” or even “quality of life laws.”

Cities across the country are increasingly passing and enforcing these laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which some people consider “criminalizing” homelessness. However, a recent court ruling says that cities cannot prosecute homeless people for sleeping on the streets when there is not enough shelter for them.1Martin v Boise (2018) – 9th Circuit; Supreme Court let 9th circuit ruling stand

Other cities are taking an alternative approach focusing on helping homeless get off the streets, and many cities, like Los Angeles, are doing a mix of helping and penalizing. Many laws related to homelessness are made at the local level. See our Guide to Homelessness Laws in Los Angeles.

1. Shelter

Do people have a legal right to shelter in California?

In California there is no legal right to shelter, which means the government is not required to provide a place to sleep for every individual who needs one. However, if the government does NOT provide enough shelters, it may NOT prevent people from sleeping on the streets at night.2Martin v Boise (2018) – 9th Circuit

Some lawmakers are looking to create a right to shelter, as New York has. California lawmakers are also considering going even further with potentially a requirement for homeless people to accept the shelter.

Are homeless people required to go into shelters?

No, but lawmakers are considering implementing this requirement.

2. Private Property

Are homeless people allowed on private property?

While the laws have been relaxed in terms of sleeping on the streets or in a car (see below), these laws do NOT apply to private property. That is, if any person (homeless or not), is on private property without permission of the owner, this is considered trespass. See more at our Guide to Laws for Homeowners in California.

3. Food donation

Is it illegal to donate food to a non-profit (or could I be sued for it)?

No, it is NOT illegal to donate food to a charity! In fact, laws protect you from liability if you donate food to a non-profit and it later causes harm to someone who handles or eats it, as long as you did not intend to do any harm.3Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act

4. Mental Health

Are there any laws related to the mental health or mental illness of homeless people?

See our Guide to Laws Related to Mental Health.


See more info on homelessness laws across the country at our Guide to Laws about Homelessness in the U.S., and at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

Photo credits:

Top photo by Max Pixel, Creative Commons Zero.


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