Amina Washington has heard it said many ways — when she’s working, sitting on sidewalks, going to get dinner or grabbing groceries. She heard it when she was sleeping outside, and she still hears it now, even though she’s been living in her apartment for nearly a year.
“People who stand out in the front can’t come into the restaurant.”
“We’re not discriminating; we just don’t let people who beg into our restrooms.”
“You don’t belong here.”
“They just don’t like homeless people,” Washington said about those who have treated her poorly because they assumed she was unhoused.
People experiencing homelessness in D.C. have long reported facing discrimination when renting an apartment, applying for jobs or just going about their days. Police have removed Washington from restaurants, and store clerks have accused her of shoplifting — each time, she said, because she appeared like she could be sleeping outside. Washington struggled to find a job without a permanent address. People physically attacked her on the street or told her she was an addict. Even though she lives in an apartment now, she’s hesitant to return to places she frequented when she was homeless, in case they remember her.
The kinds of discriminatory actions that Washington, a Street Sense vendor, describes are illegal. Last June, the D.C. Council passed the Human Rights Enhancement Amendment Act, which added homelessness to a list of 23 protected traits in the city. Soon after the law took effect in October, the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) began accepting complaints from people about discrimination they encountered while trying to secure housing or employment, attending school, dining at a restaurant or patronizing another business. But the process relies on people experiencing discrimination to submit complaints, some of whom say they don’t trust the government to take their concerns seriously.
Still, the new protections buoyed Nikkie Smith, who plans to file a complaint about guards who recently removed her from a public space based on their assumption that she was homeless.
“I should be able to sit down and go wherever I want to without someone assuming that I’m any less than what they are,” she said.
New protections against discrimination
The People for Fairness Coalition, an activist group led by people with lived experience with homelessness, began lobbying for the city to outlaw discrimination against people experiencing homelessness in 2015. Legislation banning discrimination against people experiencing homelessness, each named after advocate Michael Stoops, was introduced three times before the council passed the current law. As part of implementation, OHR will be training law enforcement officers within the year, and reaching out to local homeless services organizations to conduct training about the protections.
“The fact that you don’t have a permanent home should not be a barrier to have access to all those things that we enjoy in the District,” OHR Director Hnin Khaing said in an interview.
OHR began to enforce the Human Rights Enhancement Amendment Act — along with another new law that offers new protections for renters — in October when funding became available with the new fiscal year.
Landlords are no longer allowed to ask or consider whether a potential tenant has an eviction record that has been sealed. Khaing, a mayoral appointee who received D.C. Council confirmation in February, compared these protections to “ban the box” laws that generally prohibit employers from discriminating based on criminal record. The name comes from the box that previously existed on job applications asking if someone had a criminal conviction.
The same new D.C. law also grants enhanced tenant protections to people who use vouchers. Despite decades-old laws, some landlords have taken advantage of loopholes to discriminate against people who rely on housing vouchers, according to Susie McClanahan, senior manager of the Fair Housing Rights Program at the Equal Rights Center (ERC).
Provisions under the new law explicitly prohibit landlords from rejecting potential tenants who rely on housing vouchers based on their credit score or income level. Since the government pays the majority of the rent and determines what the voucher holder can afford, it makes no sense for landlords to examine past rental history from before a renter received their voucher, McClanahan explained.
“If you’re using a subsidy, then what relevance is there in asking someone about their rental or credit history?” Khaing said. Since there’s no acceptable reason for a landlord to request that information, landlords who do so are presumed to be engaging in discrimination against those who rent using subsidies.
How the process works
People may file complaints with OHR by submitting an intake questionnaire in-person, online, via mail or via email. It’s free to file a complaint, and OHR will guide people through what can be a complicated process, Khaing said.
“Filing a complaint can be daunting and overwhelming and scary to be perfectly honest, and it takes time and it does take a little bit of commitment,” she said.
People may submit complaints about the discrimination they experienced no matter the severity, as long as they believe they were treated differently based on their real or perceived homelessness.
Once OHR receives a complaint, the office works with the person who submits it to file a formal charge. OHR takes it to the other party, and the two enter meditation to resolve the issue. If they are unable to reach an agreement, OHR will open an investigation.
If the investigation reveals probable cause that discrimination occurred, OHR sends the complaint into another round of mediation, which, if not successful, is followed by a public hearing. Any retaliation is prohibited throughout the process, and OHR will not share sensitive information, such as a person’s immigration status, with any other agencies.
Legal aid organizations or the ERC can also provide support through the process, walking clients through complaints and hearings, McClanahan said. While OHR provides assistance, the complaints process can take several months and requires a lot of time. The ERC staff can go through the process with a complainant, helping to even the playing field against what may be a large company or landlord.
Not a perfect solution
Washington wants to submit complaints about some of the discrimination she’s experienced in recent months. She firmly believes businesses should be punished if they break the law. But she’s also a little skeptical that the city will actually side with people experiencing homelessness.
In the past, businesses have called the police on Washington after she accused them of discriminating against her. The police never believe her, she said, which doesn’t give her a lot of confidence any government agency will.
“The police agreed with the person because they had a job and I didn’t, they had a home and I didn’t,” she added. “I was nothing but a street rat to them, that’s all they thought about, that I was the one breaking the law because I was just there.”
OHR does not share information with other government agencies like law enforcement, Khaing stressed, and staff are trained to listen to those who come to the office.
Washington is not alone in her sentiment, advocates say. Skeptics may lack faith that their complaint will make a difference against what feels like a tide of discrimination. Others may be unaware of the new laws or the enforcement procedures.
“The burden should not fall on an individual who has experienced housing discrimination to go through the entire process for there to be some sort of compliance with the law,” McClanahan said. She pointed to a separate complaints process, called director’s inquiries, which allows OHR to open its own complaint, taking the burden off the person who experienced discrimination. The office hopes to conduct more director’s inquiries this year, one of which is expected to focus on landlords discriminating against those who rent using subsidies.
Despite her concerns, Washington hopes the new law will stop people from discriminating against those they assume are homeless. “I’m just there to purchase something in the store and leave,” she said. “I’m just there to eat in a restaurant and leave.”
This post has been updated to clarify references to the Equal Rights Center and new tenant protections.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.