Month: October 2014

Aljazeera interviews DHOL on Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights

Homeless Bill of Rights aims to protect life-sustaining activities

Rights to move freely, sit, sleep and have access to hygiene facilities cited in surveys of 1,300 homeless people

A coalition of over 125 social justice groups is working on a Homeless Bill of Rights to be introduced to state legislatures in an effort to end thecriminalization of people who live on the streets.

Advocates working in Colorado, California and Oregon have argued that local laws have criminalized life-sustaining actions like sitting or sleeping in public places. They argue that these laws unfairly target those perceived as undesirable, including the homeless, in an attempt to push them out of public spaces.

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“Imagine if every shopper in Times Square that sat down got a ticket. It would never happen. It’s so blatantly racist and classist,” Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), told Al Jazeera, noting that those earmarked for police attention tended to be nonwhite and dressed in such a way to suggest poverty. “We’re talking about laws that every single person is going to break, but only certain people have the police enforcing the laws against them.”

The coalition has compiled over 1,300 interviews with the homeless and said it has identified six priority areas to be included in the Homeless Bill of Rights.

Those six are the right to move freely and sleep in public spaces without discrimination, to sleep in a parked vehicle, to eat and exchange food in public, to obtain legal counsel, to access hygiene facilities 24/7 and to use the necessity defense in any criminal prosecution.

In the coming months, the coalition will work with lawyers to develop the bill, based on the most common complaints in each of the three states and then find state representatives to sponsor the bills for legislative sessions beginning in January 2015.

Thumbnail image for Opinion: The growing criminalization of homelessness

Opinion: The growing criminalization of homelessness

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Criminalization of the homeless is nothing new and is part of the national status quo, Boden said. It’s based on the broken-windows theory that addressing anti-social behavior will drive down more serious crimes. But the policing tactic unfairly singles out some groups — especially black and Hispanic people and the poor — and results in the removing of panhandlers and the mentally disabled from public spaces.

“They’re the broken window, and if you don’t remove them, all the other windows are going to get broken. If you’re black, mentally ill and homeless, you’re going to see the inside of a jail cell in no time,” he said.

According to interviews with the homeless, the top three activities that they were being criminalized for are sleeping, sitting and standing still in public areas.

“We want to get rid of the legal authority for local governments to use racist and classist police enforcement to get rid of people they don’t want in their town,” Boden said.

In Colorado, Denver Homeless Out Loud, a homeless rights group working with WRAP on the bill of rights, has taken over 400 surveys of homeless people in cities across the state to record their experiences and find out if their rights have been violated.

“In the survey responses, we are seeing that there is an excessive amount of police harassment happening around basic acts of survival, like sleeping,” said Terese Howard, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud.

“Another complaint we see a lot is that their belongings were taken, which is something that happens in association with being bothered by police at their sleeping spot … and sometimes the police will confiscate belongings at that time — backpacks, sleeping bags, IDs, birth certificates and even medication.”

Pattern of discrimination

Similar legislation has already been passed in Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut meant to protect the rights of the homeless. But the section of the legislation meant to stop the criminalization of these life-sustaining behaviors was amended out of the bills — essentially leaving it toothless, say activists.

“We were offered the same thing here last year when we were running our bill in California, and if we wanted, we could have ended up with the same thing as Rhode Island ended up with,” Boden said. “The end result with the Rhode Island bill is that the rich as well as the poor are forbidden from certain behaviors.”

Last year’s attempt to pass a bill that would put an end to the criminalization of those behaviors was unsuccessful, but Boden said they expected this process to be a long struggle and were not dismayed.

The Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut legislation aimed to end the discriminatory use of such laws so that all would be subject to the rules. But Boden argued that they are still enforced mainly against the poor and those deemed unseemly. As a result, he and others say, the homeless charter must take away local authorities’ ability to criminalize certain behavior.

In a signal that this movement may spread to additional states, social justice groups in Seattle invited WRAP members to a conference last week where they discussed Washington’s potential plans for its own homeless charter.

Boden said the bill of rights is about not just the homeless but also all “undesirables” in society. Reinforcing that idea is the fact that at least 125 social justice groups in five states form the coalition.

Laws targeting the homeless are a continuation of similar legislation that targeted marginalized and minority groups in the past, according to Boden.

“We see historically — whether it is Japanese-Americans or African-Americans — we see a long, entrenched history of the flavor of the month being targeted by local governments using the same enforcement procedure,” he said. “Create local laws under local government enforced by local police and private security … in order to remove people from whatever part of town or town they don’t want them in.”

Howard echoed Boden’s statements, saying these laws are fundamentally discriminatory.

“It’s important to note how this sort of criminalization follows in the footsteps of laws that have been on the books in past, with the primary goal of pushing ‘undesirables’ out of the public space,” Howard said. “Whether that’s Jim Crow, sundown laws, anti-Okie laws — these laws discriminate against only a certain type of people.”


Editor’s note: Al Jazeera America will be publishing a series of articles in the coming weeks focused on different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.

Vice news interviews DHOL about Colorado Homeless Bill of Rights

A Growing Movement Is Fighting the Criminalization of Homelessness

By Alice Speri

October 6, 2014 | 3:55 pm

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 they hope to put before lawmakers early next year.

“We want basic human rights, we want to be able to pee, we want to be able to sleep, we want to be able to sit down,” Ray Lyall, a member of Denver Homeless Out Loud, one of the groups behind the initiative, told VICE News.

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“Homeless people are almost always told to get up, to move along; they can’t sleep, they can’t sit,” added Lyall, who is himself homeless. “They are trying to stop the sharing of food, there’s a lot of the general public that comes out and hands food out, and they’re trying to stop that. And we did a report on the availability of bathrooms here in Denver, and there’s absolutely none that’s open 24 hours.”

Lyall says he is very optimistic a homeless bill of rights will eventually pass in Colorado, and has been doing outreach with Denver’s 11,000 homeless residents to build support for the initiative.

‘Instead of trying to solve homelessness, cities around the country have criminalized it.’

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, they say.

“If you talk to homeless folks, the criminalization of homelessness is a big issue because homeless folks are being cited, harassed, and arrested for things that they have no control over,” Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the DC-based National Coalition for the Homeless, told VICE News. “They have to sleep in the park, they have to sit on the sidewalk…”

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Where restrictive laws are in place, the homeless are disproportionately singled out for enforcement, advocates state.

“They are definitely targeting us,” Lyall said. “I play guitar downtown. I don’t panhandle, but I play guitar. I don’t ask for money, I stay out of people’s way, I play my guitar, and the cops just come and tell me I have to move. I know the law and I don’t have to move, but they tell me I have to move just because I’m homeless.”

“But if you come here on the weekend there are people that live in houses that come down and play their guitars,” he added. “They don’t have to move.”

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.

“We want real affordable housing,” said Lyall, who has been without a home, for a second time, for a year and a half. “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.”

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But 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 provisions that legalize discrimination against the homeless.

There’s a movement around the country for a homeless bill of rights,” Stoops said. “Instead of trying to solve homelessness, cities around the country have criminalized it, and so in response to that we 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 was the first state in the union to adopt one, in 2012. A year later, Illinois and Connecticut followed.

‘There’s always a more idealistic version of any bill, but you always have to look at what’s possible.’

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,” Paul Boden, executive director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, one of the groups pushing for the bill, told Al Jazeera.

Last year, California pushed for a bolder bill, which was rejected, but 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,” Stoops said. “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,” he added.

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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 human rights act of 1977. If the push is successful, the group says, 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,” Stoops said. “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.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi