Kelly Wilkinson / AP

Indianapolis passes law to protect homeless as movement gains steam

Growing number of city councils consider legislation as state lawmakers eye proposals to end criminalization of homeless

Indianapolis became the first U.S. city to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights measure this week — the latest success for a national campaign to end criminalization of the homeless.

Indianapolis' proposal, passed on Monday and awaiting a signature from the mayor, would protect the rights of homeless people to move freely in public spaces, to receive equal treatment from city agencies, to obtain emergency medical care, to vote and to maintain privacy for personal property, Indy Star, a local newspaper, reported.

The bill would also require the city to give a homeless person 15 days notice before requiring them to leave a camp, the newspaper said. Authorities would be required to store any displaced person’s property for 60 days as well as refer them to nonprofit organizations that could provide services and transitional housing.

"It is much more cost-effective to provide support services and assistance to those experiencing homelessness in our city than to arrest them," Indianapolis councilman LeRoy Robinson said. "Sadly, our city had chosen the latter." Robinson is the sponsor of the legislation in the city council.

Activists are pushing for similar protections in other cities, including Washington, D.C.; Madison, Wisconsin; and Duluth, Minnesota. The laws would guarantee the rights of the homeless to carry out basic human functions such as sitting, standing, eating and sleeping in public areas. Duluth's city council has passed a measure identifying the need for such a bill, and advocates are working on a bill in for the city of Madison, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organization for the National Coalition for the Homeless. Legislation to add homelessness to Washington, D.C.’s anti-discrimination law may be introduced this spring, Stoops added.

The campaign comes amid a rise in the nationwide homeless population, and in laws targeting them, since the 2008 recession. Advocates say these laws are aimed at removing those deemed undesirable from public spaces, and that they subject homeless people to police harassment or arrest for carrying out activities that everyone must do — but only some have to do in public areas. 

The number of laws used to target the homeless increased sharply in the 1980s. One recent study in California found that these municipal laws rose along with the homeless population — there was a spike in the 1980s when federal funding for affordable housing was slashed and again after the 2008 recession.

Criminalization, advocates say, can make it more difficult to reduce homelessness. A criminal record can make it more difficult to find employment and housing, and aggressive policing pushes the homeless out of city centers, farther from the services intended to help them. That’s why homeless rights groups are pushing to protect the rights of the homeless at the local, state and, perhaps, the national level.

"A federal homeless bill of rights would be the ultimate goal, but I can tell you I've not come across any member of Congress who have wanted to do that," Stoops said. "That's why we don't have a federal bill — we have a city by city and state by state strategy."

In Indiana, activists chose to focus on a changing Indianapolis's law because the city council was more progressive and amenable to such a bill than the state's legislature, he added. The city council passed a measure modeled on similar state laws already in place in Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut.

Those laws, however, do not go as far as the ones introduced this year in California, Colorado and Oregon. The “Right to Rest Act” would end the criminalization of eating, resting or sleeping in public for everyone. The laws in Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut stipulate only that everyone must be equally criminalized for such actions.

Washington state is considering introducing a similarly strong legislation, Stoops added, and has been working with the coalition of groups led by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) that successfully campaigned for the Right to Rest Act.

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