Many homeless people in America don’t want much -- often it’s just the ability to sit down in public without fear of getting arrested. But with increasing measures to criminalize homelessness across the U.S., that’s often not a possibility.
Advocates now hope that by pushing through a "Homeless Bill of Rights" in Colorado, California and Oregon, homeless people will feel less like criminals, and more like citizens with the chance to move forward in life. The bills will give people on the streets the freedom to move around, among other basic rights.
“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,” Terese Howard, member of advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud, told Al Jazeera of anti-homeless laws. “Whether that’s Jim Crow, sundown laws, anti-Okie laws, these laws discriminate against only a certain type of people.”
A coalition of more than 125 social justice groups has come together with lawyers and people living on the streets to draft the Homeless Bill of Rights to be introduced to state legislatures, according to Al Jazeera, and hopes to find state representatives to sponsor the bills for the next legislative session, which begins in January 2015.
After conducting more than 1,300 interviews, the coalition identified six key rights homeless people need protected. The bill aims to ensure that homeless people can move freely and sleep in public spaces, sleep in a parked vehicle, eat and exchange food in public, obtain legal counsel, gain access to hygiene facilities at any time of day and, if in criminal prosecution, be able to use “necessity defense,” which asserts a defendant had no choice but to break the law.
These issues have been hot-button topics in an overwhelming number of U.S. cities as of late.
From January 2013 to April 2014 alone, 33 cities issued bans against giving homeless people free food, Vice News reported in June.
Los Angeles County proposed such a measure in November 2013 after residents complained of homeless people infringing on their neighborhoods while getting free food, The New York Times reported.
“They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next door neighbor’s crawl spaces,” Alexander Polinsky, a resident who lives two blocks from a station where volunteers handed out free meals, told The Times. “We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”
But food restrictions are just one of a number of anti-homelessness laws that are on the rise in America.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) has been tracking such measures since 2009 and concluded in a July report that such laws are showing no signs of slowing down. The group also noted that these ordinances are costly and don't make much of a difference in reducing homelessness rates.
The number of cities that prohibit sitting or lying in public spaces, for example, jumped by 43 percent from 2011 to this year. Bans on begging increased by 25 percent during the same period.
But while many cities remain determined to criminalize homelessness, some have already stepped up to support and empower people living on the streets, lending credence to the mission of the coalition in California, Oregon and Colorado.
Back in 2012, Rhode Island passed its own homeless bill of rights to better protect homeless people. The law prohibits governments, police, healthcare workers, landlords or employers from discriminating against homeless people because of their housing status, the Associated Press reported.
"Now we're a leader in something," state Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield, told the AP. "Hopefully other states will now pick up the slack and move this all the way across the country to California."