A Homeless Bill of Rights: Advocates Poised to Work for Civil Rights Legislation in the District

This fall, volunteers for the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) will be heading out to shelters, parks and soup kitchens on a unique mission.

Armed with surveys, they hope to gain insights into discrimination as it is experienced by homeless people.

The survey results will be used to help build a case for legislation designed to protect the civil rights of homeless people to use public space, vote, feel safe, obtain legal help, social services and education.

In early 2014, the NCH hopes to petition the DC City Council for a Homeless Bill of Rights.

Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Illinois have passed such bills. Similar legislation is under consideration in Vermont, Missouri, Massachusetts, Oregon, and California.

Such laws are needed, according the the NCH, because homeless people are vulnerable to discrimination locally and nationwide. The laws include provisions aimed at ensuring homeless people enjoy the same civil rights as everyone else, such as the ability to use and move freely in public spaces, such as sidewalks, public parks, public transportation, and public buildings, and the right to vote, register to vote, and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting without discrimination due to housing status.

This fall’s survey will include a range of questions exploring everything from police harassment to access to medical treatment. Included among the questions are these:

“Have you ever felt that you have been discriminated by law enforcement officers because of your homelessness?”

“Do you believe that you have been denied employment or fired because an employer was aware of your homelessness?”

“Have the DC police ever taken or destroyed your belongings in a situation when you were not arrested?”
In drawing up the questions, the authors got help from homeless advocate David Pirtle who tapped into his own experiences during a period of homelessness.

“I was stoned several times; people throwing rocks at me, both in New York and in Washington, D.C.,” said Pirtle, who participates in the NCH’s Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau.

Pirtle said he believes the survey and the Homeless Bill of Rights are good ideas.

“My situation is by no means unique,” Pirtle said. “That’s why these bills are so important.”

A search of newspapers turned up other examples. Tina Carter was given a ticket in Oct. 2009 for standing on a sidewalk in Nashville, because a business called the police and complained. She subsequently spent 10 days in jail for failing to appear in court, according to the Nashville Contributor.

A Homeless Bill of Rights would aim to protect Carter from discrimination from businesses that believe the presence of a homeless person negatively affects their profits.

In order to draw up a Homeless Bill of Rights, the general public as well as public officials need to know about homeless discrimination and criminalization, said Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the NCH.

Stoops wants the NCH to be at the forefront of this battle, so the organization drafted the survey to collect data in D.C. for the first time.

Volunteers will survey up to 500 single adults experiencing homelessness in D.C. and give the data to George Washington University graduate school students for a report, Stoops said.

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