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Civil Rights of People Experiencing Homelessness

Being homeless is not a crime.

We fight to make sure homeless persons aren’t punished for their misfortune.

Photo credit: Andres David Lopez

Recent examples of laws intended to shoo off, keep out, or otherwise restrict the homeless are everywhere. – New York Times, October 2012

A Veteran Receives a Citation for Standing Near an I-95 Ramp
Franklin Harper has been living homeless in Florida since January. He received a citation from a State Highway Patrol officer for standing near an interstate ramp in Boynton Beach.

The civil rights program has two main focuses: ending the criminalization of homelessness and reducing the burden of ID barriers on homeless people.

Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness

What is one “life-sustaining” act that we do each day, but rarely think about, let alone discuss in public?
Going to the bathroom. Yet, when you’re homeless or poor, an act that most people take for granted, such as going to the bathroom, can be a huge challenge or even a life-altering decision. Forces beyond homeless persons’ control, such as a lack of affordable housing and emergency shelter, compel them to live and take care of their basic human needs in public. When performed in inside, these acts are unquestionably legal. However, criminalization policies in many cities punish homeless persons who are forced to perform life-sustaining actions in public spaces.

Our research has shown that, of 234 American cities, 40 percent make it a crime to sleep in public spaces, while 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places and 53 percent prohibit begging and panhandling in public places. When cities uses laws or policies such as these that target homeless people for taking actions necessary to their survival, the impact is felt far and wide. While people experiencing homelessness are affected most profoundly, these measures also tax the already overburdened criminal justice system and impact service providers’ ability to do their work. Studies show that they cost more than providing permanent supportive housing. Policies that criminalize homelessness take a toll on entire communities.

Criminalization laws violate homeless persons’ constitutional rights, and the Law Center is a national leader on this issue, taking on high-impact litigation to establish positive legal precedents that can be used in courtrooms across the country.  After a six-year battle with the City of Dallas, the Law Center recently secured the right of religious groups to provide food to homeless people living outdoors. The Law Center also challenged St. Petersburg, Florida’s discriminatory enforcement of a “trespassing” ordinance, which was leading to the unconstitutional arrest of many homeless persons for sitting on public sidewalks.  In response, the City of St. Petersburg amended the ordinance to include a minimum appeals process, and the Law Center continues to monitor enforcement of the ordinance.

We also work with on-the-ground advocates and government officials to promote measures protecting homeless persons’ civil rights.  Since Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to pass a Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights in 2012, the legislation has spread across the country, with recent passage in Connecticut and Illinois, scheduled voting in California, and consideration in Oregon, Vermont and Missouri.

The Law Center has also been instrumental in promoting a human rights approach to criminalization. As a result of our advocacy, the Department of Justice and Interagency Council on Homelessness issued a report in 2012 recognizing that criminalization may violate not only our Constitution, but also our human rights treaty obligations – the first time any domestic agency has recognized a domestic policy as a human rights violation. The Law Center has also worked with numerous international experts to build a growing set of human rights law on the criminalization of homelessness, and helped numerous local groups use these experts and these standards in fighting local criminalization practices.

I.D. BARRIERS – Reducing the Burden on Homeless People

ANECDOTE: Carl Ellis, 52, is a U.S. Army veteran living in a homeless shelter in Milwaukee.  His only photo ID is a veteran ID card, which is not accepted under Wisconsin’s new voter ID law.  The Law Center is representing Ellis and others in litigation to overturn the law on constitutional grounds.

"If I can serve my country, I should be able to vote for who runs it," Ellis said. "Veterans and others who do not have a certain type of photo ID should not be kept from voting. These laws are undemocratic and un-American."

Lack of identification hinders homeless people’s ability to seek and maintain housing, employment, benefits, and other rights and services. The Law Center is at the cutting edge of advocating for ways to reduce the burden that ID barriers place on homeless people, to make it easier for them to obtain the benefits and services they need that will help them to escape homelessness.

One particularly costly way in which lack of ID harms homeless people is in exercise of the constitutional right to vote. Restrictive voter identification laws being passed in many states require a specific type of state-issued photo identification that is difficult—and sometimes impossible—for homeless persons to obtain. 

The Law Center is fighting to overturn these laws and protect access to the ballot box.  In November 2007, NLCHP filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court challenging Indiana’s Voter Photo ID law as creating unconstitutional obstacles to the right to vote. In its brief, NLCHP noted: "Indiana's effort…senselessly increases the burdens of homelessness and denies homeless people their full measure of political expression." While the Court’s final ruling in April 2008 upheld the Indiana law, NLCHP has continued working to remove barriers to voting.  More recently, we partnered with the ACLU, ACLU of Wisconsin, and Dechert LLP on a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s voter ID law.  The suit charged that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and will deprive citizens of their fundamental right to vote.  In April 2014, the Law Center won this landmark voter ID case which would have disenfranchised 300,000 eligible voters, most of whom are low income and homeless citizens. This win could create a groundbreaking legal precedent to help bring down voter ID laws in other states across America.