It’s hard to believe in modern day California multiple stories of rats are making news. From the 15-pound rats in the Delta, to the rats inhabiting downtown Los Angeles—one expert told a Los Angeles news radio station there probably exist in the city the same number of rats as the human population, in other words in the millions–these rodents are getting attention. The rats’ impact could be enough to change government policy on dealing with the homeless. 

With court orders protecting the homeless from forced removal from the streets and criminalizing street living, approaches to either change the law or have a higher court reverse lower court mandates are going forward. 

The Statewide Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing is considering asking the state to establish a “right to shelter” law.  Such a law would require local governments to provide shelter space—and provide some state dollars to achieve the goal. 

The California Constitution mentions homelessness specifically in the section on taxation that deals with funding for “Public Safety Services.”  The Commission hopes to expand requirements to establish a “right to shelter” through legislation so that local governments must follow a state mandate to provide the necessary shelter. But, mandating new expenses on cities and counties will likely spur opposition from some local officials. 

Courts come into play if a request to the U.S. Supreme Court is taken up to overturn the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that prosecuting people for sleeping on the sidewalk is unconstitutional. That has prevented tougher action to remove homeless encampments.

Whether the Supreme Court will take up the challenge or whether the legislature will pass a mandated “right to shelter” law is uncertain. 

However, the efforts likely would be carried forward on the backs of packs of rats.

With rats come medieval diseases once thought eradicated from this land, like typhus. As the threats from disease and rats grow, public heath could be the argument to trump previous successful arguments that have amounted to a near hands-off policy on the homeless.

One judge in the 9th Circuit, in dissent in a previous ruling on the homeless, said that local governments could face havoc if the current law stands and forces onerous local government investment in housing and leads to elimination of laws that prohibit defecation and urination on public streets. 

The issue of public health should force a change as remedies are sought to deal with the homeless and the electorate gets weary and disgusted with aspects of the growing homelessness problem. 

Without a vote but with great influence, rats may be the driving force to change the law in California.