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Current State of the Homeless Bill of Rights

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The Current State of the Homeless Bill of Rights: A Summary for Community Organizers

(Technical Name: The Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act)

After an introduction which consists of a historical overview that puts the oppression of homeless people in the context of historical laws that wronged other other marginalized groups of people and a brief summary of current governmental discrimination against homeless people, the Bill has a lot of “aspirational” language—things we’d like to see—about:

the right to income
the right to housing
the right to shelter and drop-in centers
the right to school supplies
the right to non-emergency and emergency healthcare
the right to social and healthcare services in adequate quantities, without barriers to entry

It doesn’t, however, guarantee any of these rights.

It creates a more expansive definition of homelessness, and encourages, but does not force, state agencies to adopt a similar definition:

“Homeless persons or people” means those individuals or families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nightime residence and who have a primary nightime residence in a shelter, on the street, in a vehicle, in an enclosure or structure that is not authorized or fit for human habitation, substandard apartments, dwellings, doubled up temporarily with friends or families, or staying in transitional housing programs. “Homeless persons or people” also means any person residing anywhere without tenancy rights, and families with children staying in a residential hotel whether or not they have tenancy rights.

It guarantees homeless people the following freedoms:

  • freedom from discrimination by law enforcement, private security, business owners, and people acting on behalf

of BIDs
freedom from discrimination in employment and harassment on the job
freedom from discrimination in access to housing
freedom from unreasonable search or seizure of any property kept in tents, carts, backpacks, etc.
freedom from discrimination in access to public services
freedom from discrimination in all steps involved in atempting to vote
freedom from discrimination in purchasing any goods or services or entering any contests
freedom from release of social service and healthcare records to law enforcement without a warrant or similar legal authority
freedom from the release of similar records to landlords and employers

It guarantees the following rights:

the right to move freely in public places
the right to rest and sleep in public places, as long as it doesn’t obstruct passageways
the right to share, accept, and give food in public places
the right to protection by law enforcement
the right to set down personal property or rest with personal property in public places as long as it doesn’t obstruct passageways the right to engage in life-sustaining activities in public places, so long as those activities don’t create an immediate public safety hazard: sleeping, resting while sitting, lying down, and standing, and panhandling are explicitly included
the right to make a living by recycling or collecting junk
the right to pray, meditate, or otherwise practice religion in public places
the right to refuse shelter and other social services
the right to live in one’s vehicle (as long as the vehicle is legally parked)
schoolchildren’s right to transportation and other necessary education services, as guaranteed under the McKinney-Vento Act
the right to restitution for property lost to law enforcement, private security, or people acting on behalf of BIDs

It prohibits law enforcement from citing, arresting, or charging people for engaging in life-sustaining activities(with the same specific examples as above) until the county provides General Assistance all year long, and the area does not have particularly high unemployment and the public housing waiting list is fewer than 50 people.

It guarantees all people the right to a defense attorney when they’ve received a bench warrant for an infraction. It also guarantees a defense attorney even for infractions if a DA is prosecuting. People also get defense counsel in any legal proceeding that could result in commitment to any public health institution, or to deportation.

It creates a “necessity defense” for sleeping, sitting, camping, or trespassing on public property for homeless people. A necessity defense means that while an act may technically be a crime, a person is not considered guilty by the courts, because they had no other choice.

It requires every local government or heavily populated unincorporated area to have 24/7 health and hygiene centers for homeless people. These centers are to be funded by the State Department of Public Health. At a minimum, these centers must have bathrooms and showers.

It requires law enforcement agencies to report to the state on their issuance of tickets for: blocking the sidewalk, loitering, sitting, lying down, camping, “public lodging,” sleeping in public, panhandling, bathing in public, staying in parks after closing hours, trespassing, and any other laws identified by the Attorney General, the city attorney, or organizations like ours. This information is to be publicly available.

It amends the Unruh Civil Rights Act, applying it to homeless people, and giving them equal rights in using any businesses.

It protects public employees from penalties for providing services to homeless people. It protects people who offer food in public places or who offer religious teachings or services from civil or criminal penalties or harassment by law enforcement, private security, or BIDs.

It gives people the right to file a motion in court if any of the above rights have been violated, and gives them a right to seek damages (including statutory damages of $1,000 per violation as well as any actual damages and lawyers’ fees) and an injunction against further violations, if necessary.

It prohibits any licensing board or housing provider from discriminating on the basis of housing status. It authorizes the Department of Fair Housing and Employment to mediate in situations where there may have been discrimination on the basis of housing status, and to issue publications of investigations into discrimination based on housing status.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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