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US homeless pin hopes on 'Bill of Rights' to end criminalization in 2015

2014 saw increase in laws targeting homeless, but grassroots efforts aimed to help get people off the streets

While the total number of homeless people in the United States fell slightly this year thanks to a gradual economic recovery, new laws criminalizing homelessness are making it harder to get homeless individuals and families off the streets. That could change next year, as three states consider passing a Homeless Bill of Rights.

On any given night in the U.S., there are over 600,000 people facing life without security, a home, or a place to keep their belongings, according to the State of Homelessness in America 2014, a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Over 200,000 of those are children — an all-time high for the U.S. — and families make up about a third of the total homeless population.

At the same time, the number of laws targeting the homeless by making it illegal to sleep, eat or sit in public places has been on the rise in cities across the U.S. At least 21 cities, for example, now have laws against exchanging food in public, making it illegal to give food to the homeless. In one case, a 91-year-old pastor and World War II veteran, Arthur Abbott, was arrested on multiple occasions in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for giving out food to the homeless after the city made that act of charity illegal.

Al Jazeera America's in-depth coverage of Homelessness in America

Advocates for the homeless argue that these laws are the equivalent of criminalizing poverty, as the homeless are simply doing what all human beings need to do to survive, but they lack the private space to do them. 

“Imagine if every shopper in Times Square that sat down got a ticket. It would never happen. It’s so blatantly racist and classist,” Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), told Al Jazeera, noting that those earmarked for police attention tended to be nonwhite and dressed in such a way to suggest poverty. “We’re talking about laws that every single person is going to break, but only certain people have the police enforcing the laws against them."

Boden's organization is among several working to draft a Homeless Bill of Rights, which may be considered by state legislatures in California, Oregon and Colorado in January. If made into law, the Bill of Rights would help end the criminalization of homelessness.

The proposed legislation is based on hundreds of interviews with homeless individuals and families, who identified what they feel are the most important basic rights they are often criminalized for. Those include the right to move freely and sleep in public spaces, the right to sleep in a parked vehicle, the right to eat and exchange food in public, and the right to have 24-hour access to hygiene facilities.

More than 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to toilets, mainly in poor countries, according to United Nations estimates. But in the U.S., homeless Americans say the lack of clean public restrooms means that they must resort to urinating and defecating outside, an act that is illegal in most cities. The Bill of Rights would end criminalization of life sustaining behaviors including these actions, and encourage the establishment of public restrooms homeless Americans can use without discrimination.

Advocates for the homeless blame the increasing criminalization of homelessness on the broken-windows theory of policing, first proposed in 1982 and adopted by police departments in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and many other cities. The theory goes that strict enforcement of minor offenses (fixing “broken windows”) creates a sense of public order that can prevent violent crime. The controversial strategy has more recently been used by smaller municipalities after the 2008 recession to attract investment by revitalizing their downtown areas — in such cases, homeless people are effectively the “broken windows.”

There are other solutions, and Americans across the country are working to fill the gaps left by insufficient affordable housing and federal funding for homeless assistance. In Madison, Wisconsin, Occupy Madison volunteers and local people experiencing homelessness worked together to build a village of tiny homes for them. In Venice Beach, California, volunteers created a program that provides the homeless with a place to store their belongings safely, for free, so that they don’t have to worry about their possessions being stolen or thrown away when they go for job interviews or other appointments. A San Francisco nonprofit is retrofitting old city buses into mobile showers and toilets for the homeless.

Finding a way of out of homelessness is difficult for anyone, and laws criminalizing homelessness make it even tougher. If the Homeless Bill of Rights does pass in some states next year, it could serve as a model for other communities looking for new solutions to homelessness, rather than obstacles for those trying to escape it.

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