Wednesday, July 13, 2016

(Previous Draft Version) Bill of Rights for Citizens Experiencing Homelessness (Alternative Draft)

     The criminalization of homelessness, defined as the punitive social reaction to life-sustaining behaviors and activities engaged in by persons experiencing homelessness, has dramatically been on the rise across the nation for better than two decades. This regressive approach in response to burgeoning homelessness has been documented in seminal reports from the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and other regional homeless advocacy organizations. Implemented primarily via the agency of municipal government, nearly every state in the nation has seen an increase in the number of laws prohibiting life-sustaining activities like camping, sleeping in vehicles, begging/panhandling, performing bodily functions (even in the absence of public restrooms), storing personal property outdoors and, perhaps most egregiously, the sharing of food by both secular and faith-based institutions.
        In response to these oppressive measures which serve no documented function whatsoever in terms of moving society in the direction of ending homelessness, homeless persons and advocates have united to bring ‘Right-to-Rest’ or Homeless Bill of Rights legislation to their respective states. Three states now include HBoR’s among their statutes – Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois – while a host of others have brought forth similar proposals in recent years but have yet to see them passed: California, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Delaware. The latter’s legislature is considering a Homeless Bill of Rights at the time of this writing.

          Florida, which a variety of reports suggest may be the #1 state in the nation in terms of its criminalization of homelessness, arguably needs to adopt such a measure for the protection of the basic human rights and dignity of homeless persons more than any other.

Proposed Bill of Rights for Florida Citizens Experiencing Homelessness

Short title. – This chapter shall be known and may be cited as the "Homeless Bill of Rights."

Legislative intent. – At the present time, many persons are enduring homelessness, that is, the lack of a permanent, nighttime residence, as a result of economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe and affordable housing, and a shrinking social safety net. It is the long-standing policy of this State that no person should suffer unnecessarily from the elements (cold, heat, rain, etc.), be deprived of food or shelter (or the basic rights incident to both), or be subject to unfair discrimination based on his or her housing status. It is the intent of this chapter to ameliorate the adverse effects visited upon families and individuals and our communities when the State’s residents lack permanent housing, and create a society where all people, regardless of their housing status, are valued and treated with dignity and respect, and their human, legal and civil rights are protected.

SECTION 1. Bill of Rights – All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which is the right to acquire, possess and protect property. No person's rights, privileges or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is experiencing homeless. Every person, regardless of housing status, has the following rights:
a)      the right to housing, which is a basic human right, as stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control;” thus, the State and local municipalities will take measurable steps to intervene in the housing crisis in order to provide safe, affordable emergency shelter and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, including for those who are extremely-low-income (ELI), and forbid discrimination against persons seeking housing because they may not have a fixed or residential mailing address or because they only have a post office box or social service agency as a mailing address;
b)      the right to equal treatment under the law by all State and municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status, and equal protection of the laws and due process by law enforcement and prosecuting agencies;
c)      the right not to face discrimination in obtaining or maintaining employment due the lack of a permanent residence or a permanent mailing address, or because the mailing address is that of a homeless shelter, or a homeless or social services provider; 
d)     the right to personal safety, which shall include: protection from violence based upon housing status, and law enforcement’s recording and reporting of all such incidents;
e)      the right to use and move freely in public spaces, which shall include but not limited to public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status; 
f)       the right to rest or sleep in temporary shelter, such as any legally-parked motor or recreational vehicle or a self-erected shelter (e.g., a tent), on public or private property, for the purpose of immediate survival of persons, and their pets, without harassment by law enforcement officers or others, especially when there is an inadequate availability of suitable shelter and housing, and law enforcement shall give such persons fifteen (15) days’ notice, except in the case of a public health crisis or other emergency, to displace such persons from an encampment or relocate the temporary shelter(s);
g)      the right to emergency medical care, free from discrimination based on housing status; 
h)      the right to vote, register to vote, and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting, without discrimination due to housing status; 
i)        the right to protection of personal property, in accordance with Article 1, Section 9 of the State Constitution, which states no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, which includes: 1) not having identification or personal records, especially documentation of mainstream benefits, legal proceedings and familial records, discarded or destroyed by law enforcement or others, 2) storing displaced people's belongings for 60 days without charge, and 3) the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence; and,
j)        the right to give and accept food, water (or other non-alcoholic beverages) and shelter,  in public spaces or elsewhere, and to connect persons experiencing homelessness with nonprofits that would provide them with shelter or transitional housing and "wrap-around services," such as counseling, medical care and employment assistance.

SECTION 2. Basic Human Functions – All human beings, regardless of housing status, have the same basic needs to defecate, urinate, and access clean water and other living necessities. All persons, whether permanently housed or experiencing homelessness, should have the opportunity to perform these basic human functions in public locations and facilities, which includes public parks and buildings, with dignity and relative privacy under hygienic circumstances and conditions, in clean, safe, highly accessible facilities, free to all persons.

SECTION 3. Posting – A notice entitled "DECLARATION OF HOMELESS PERSON’S BILL OF RIGHTS" and containing the text in this resolution will be conspicuously posted in all public parks and on the notice boards of all municipal buildings.

SECTION 4. Application of Resolution – This resolution shall apply to county and municipal agencies and employees, including all law enforcement officers and officials, as well as private actors.

SECTION 5. Documentation of Incidents – To ensure equitable and cost­ effective enforcement of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights, every local law enforcement agency shall annually compile, review, and make available to any inquiring party, the number of citations, arrests, and other enforcement activities made pursuant to laws prohibiting the following:
1.          Obstructing a sidewalk, whether by a person or personal property;
2.          Loitering;
3.          Sitting;
4.          Lying down;
5.          Camping;
6.          Public lodging;
7.          Sleeping in a public place;
8.          Soliciting donations;
9.          Soliciting donations at certain restricted locations, including citing people for panhandling;
10.      Bathing in public places;
11.      Sharing or receiving food;
12.      Inhabiting or sleeping in a vehicle;
13.      Violating public park closure laws;
14.      Trespassing, unless the trespassing charge is coupled with any other misdemeanor or felony.
15.      Preparing and/or cooking food.

SECTION 6. Definition of Homeless – For the purposes of this resolution, “homeless” means lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate residence, or having a primary 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, staying in transitional housing programs, staying anywhere without tenancy rights, or staying with one or more children of whom they are the parent or legal guardian in a residential hotel or motel whether or not they have tenancy rights.

SECTION 7. Definition of Harassment – “Harassment” means a knowing and willful course of conduct by law enforcement, public or private security personnel, or a private citizen directed at a specific person or group of persons, especially because of their lack of housing, that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously intimidating, seriously threatening, seriously tormenting, or seriously terrorizing a person so as to disrupt, change or alter their behavior or location.

SECTION 8. Severable – The provisions of this act are severable. If any provision of this act or its application is held invalid, that invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications that can be given effect without the invalid provision or application.

    Damages and attorney's fees.  In any civil action alleging a violation of this Act, the court may award appropriate injunctive and declaratory relief, actual damages, and reasonable attorney's fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff. 

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