Homeless people and their advocates across the United States are pushing back against cities’ attempts to erase the problem of homelessness by criminalizing it and demanding that their basic rights be recognized and protected.
As the national momentum grows around individual states’ proposals for a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” dozens of social justice and homeless advocacy groups in three states have united in the effort, surveying homeless people about their priorities and working to draft legislation to put before lawmakers early next year.
Ray Lyall, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud, one of the groups behind the initiative, said:
Instead of trying to solve homelessness, cities around the country have criminalized it. We want basic human rights; we want to be able to sleep and we want to be able to sit down. Homeless people are almost always told to get up, to move along; we can’t sleep, we can’t sit. There’s a lot of the general public who come out and hand food out, and they’re trying to stop that. We did a report on the availability of bathrooms here in Denver, and there’s absolutely none open 24 hours.
Lyall has been doing outreach with Denver’s 11,000 homeless residents to build support for the initiative and says he is very optimistic a homeless bill of rights will eventually pass in Colorado. The coalition of groups pushing for the bill has identified a series of priorities they want legislation to address — from access to toilets to the right to eat and share food in public to the right to sleep in parked cars and in public parks without discrimination.
Many cities’ prohibitions against these activities unfairly target the homeless. Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the DC-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said:
If you talk to homeless folks, the criminalization of homelessness is a big issue because they are being cited, harassed and arrested for things that they have no control over. They have to sleep in the park; they have to sit on the sidewalk.
Where restrictive laws are in place, the homeless are disproportionately singled out for enforcement, advocates state.
While the proposed bill of rights focuses on “essential” activities like sleeping, eating and sitting, the advocates are also pushing for more substantial, long-term solutions.
Lyall who has been without a home, for a second time, for a year and a half, explained:
We want real affordable housing. What they call affordable housing here is for someone who’s either a nurse or works for the fire department or something like that. There is no real affordable housing; a person making $10 an hour can’t afford a home in this town.
The current effort — in Colorado, Oregon, and California — is only the latest towards the recognition of the rights of the homeless. Three states have already passed similar bills, and others are working to end legalized discrimination against the homeless.
There’s a movement around the country for a homeless bill of rights. Instead of trying to solve homelessness, cities around the country have criminalized it, and so in response to that, many are fighting against proposed anti-homeless laws throughout the country, and the most recent positive outcome has been some states adopting full-fledged homeless bills of rights.
Following the example of Puerto Rico, which passed its own bill in 2007, Rhode Island, in 2012, was the first state to adopt one. A year later, Illinois and Connecticut followed.
Those bills are important victories, but they don’t directly tackle the criminalization of homelessness, critics say. The end result with the Rhode Island bill is that the rich as well as the poor are forbidden from certain behaviors.
Last year, California pushed for a bolder bill, but it was rejected. However as cities and municipalities have cracked down on the homeless by banning their most basic behaviors, support for a broader recognition of their rights has grown.
California’s homeless bill of rights that got defeated — and advocates are working on having it reintroduced — had a strong component against the criminalization of homelessness. The Rhode Island bill may not be as strong as the proposed California bill, but it was the first in the nation, and we are quite happy that it got passed. There’s always a more idealistic version of any bill, but you always have to look at what’s possible.
In the capital, National Coalition for the Homeless is working to end discrimination against those without a home by adding “homelessness” as a protected class under the district’s 1977 human rights act. If the push is successful, the district will be the first to make it unlawful to discriminate against homeless individuals in housing, employment, public accommodation and educational institutions.
Here in Washington DC, our initial goal is to get homelessness added to DC’s civil rights law. The criminalization of homelessness is an issue, but so is discrimination. Right now, it’s legal to discriminate against the homeless population, meaning that landlords and employers can refuse to rent to or hire people simply because they are homeless. We want to stop that.