In Washington D.C., the staging ground for every major civil rights movement, it would be unheard of to deny someone a job based on their race. Or an apartment based on their sexual orientation. Or a cup of coffee based on their religious beliefs.
However, one often-ignored minority can still legally be denied all of these rights, and then some, in the District: the homeless.
“There’s a stigma that this type of discrimination is more acceptable than discrimination against other folks in our society,” said Annie Leomporra, representing the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) at a May 1 legislative briefing on homeless rights at the Wilson Building.
This briefing was the first formal move by local homeless advocates in a push for anti-discrimination legislation — a step that could set the stage for a national civil rights movement.
“We could be the first city in the U.S. to add the word ‘homeless’ to any sort of anti-discrimination law,” said Michael Stoops, NCH’s Director of Community Organizing. “What happens in D.C. is likely to have a ripple effect around the country.”
There are two leading legislative options local advocates are rallying for. To Stoops, the “easiest” option would be simply requesting an amendment to D.C.’s Human Rights Act of 1977. Adding “homelessness” as a protected class to the act would make discrimination against people experiencing homelessness illegal.
Stoops, who has worked with homeless communities since the early 70s, began courting this option after a 2014 NCH study found two thirds of local homeless individuals said they had faced significant discrimination in the community.
The study found that many homeless individuals had been denied jobs, housing, police assistance, social services and medical care—for appearing homeless or not having a private address.
“When I got stabbed, the paramedic stated that nothing was wrong with me…he said I just wanted to get out of the rain,” reported one of the survey respondents.
Instead of piggybacking on a 40-year-old law, NCH and other advocates suggest a second legislative option: drafting a D.C. “Homeless Bill of Rights.” This bill would lay out each circumstance where the homeless should be offered treatment equal to the rest of the population.
“I want to be clear: A homeless bill of rights does not provide any special rights, it simply provides equal rights,” Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, testified.
Bauman has been tracking the criminalization of homelessness across the country. Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico have already passed all-inclusive homeless rights bills. In addition to improving the quality of life for hundreds of homeless people, the bills have helped many move into homes. This, in turn, has alleviated the tax burden homelessness had on the communities, according to Bauman.
“We aren’t advocating for more day centers or shelters, because the point here is that homeless people don’t have to have their own places,” added NCH volunteer David Pirtle. “They should have equal access to the same public spaces as anyone else.”
To make sure either of these proposals see the light of day, these groups must find a partner within the city council. Former Councilmember Jim Graham introduced a similar bill in the last session of council, but it died when he left office in January. With a goal of having legislation introduced this spring, many say the biggest hurdle will be broadening the city’s knowledge of the issue.
“No one in the community is very aware of this type of discrimination taking place,” said Albert Townsend, a representative for the People for Fairness Coalition.
Townsend, who had once been homeless himself, is working to record video interviews with homeless individuals to document their experience with discrimination. He sees multimedia as a smart tool in sharing the reality of this issue with the public—both locally and nationally.
“Our job is putting faces to the numbers in NCH’s study. To tell the stories of those unheard people,” Townsend told Street Sense. “Education is a huge piece to solving this problem.”
Along with Stoops and other local homeless advocates, Townsend attended an April meeting in Denver, Colorado where homeless rights advocates from 18 states discussed the possibility of a future national movement.
“Going to Denver really solidified my understanding of the national perspective,” Townsend said. “This isn’t just happening in D.C., it’s the same in every state.”