A Growing Movement Is Fighting the Criminalization of Homelessness
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.
“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…”
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.”
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.
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