Grosso Introduces Landmark Civil Rights Amendment to Protect Homeless Washingtonians
At a July 11 meeting of the D.C. Council, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced the Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment Act of 2017. If passed, the amendment would add homelessness as a protected class to the Human Rights Act of 1977, which is enforced by the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
The Stoops amendment would be the first legislation of its kind in the nation, according to Michael Santos of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
The Office of Human Rights would have the authority to enforce this amendment against homeless discrimination through legal action, with the same framework that has been used for decades in local cases of discrimination against other protected classes such as race and religion. OHR’s oversight differentiates the amendment from Homeless Bills of Rights that have been passed in other states and cities, where each complaint must be reviewed in the courts.
According to Annie Leomporra of the National Coalition for the Homeless, the reservation some councilmembers may have is a possible increase in lawsuits brought against the city if the amendment is passed.
As written, the Stoops amendment would guarantee equal access for homeless individuals to educational institutions, businesses, housing, commercial spaces, and health and human services. Grosso, along with Councilmembers Mary Cheh, Brianne Nadeau, and Robert White, Jr., is in the process of drafting a Homeless Bill of Rights to include with the anti-discrimination amendment. A bill of rights would add more protection against homeless discrimination and specify how these rights would be safeguarded, Grosso said in an interview with Street Sense.
“Discrimination on the basis of homelessness runs rampant throughout our city, from law enforcement to private businesses, medical and social services,” Grosso said when introducing the bill to his colleagues. “Passing this legislation will help eliminate discrimination against homeless people simply because they are homeless.”
NCH and the NLCHP have been advocating for homeless anti-discrimination legislation for about four years. The bill’s title honors Michael Stoops, a founding member of the NCH and longtime homeless rights activist, who pushed for this amendment in 2015. Stoops died on May 1.
“It’s important to honor his legacy,” Grosso said. “It’s important to recognize the work he has done to prevent discrimination against the homeless.”
A 2014 survey conducted by the NCH and George Washington University showed that 132 of 142 homeless individuals surveyed in the D.C. area felt they had been discriminated against based on their housing status. Respondents attributed the most discrimination to private businesses and police officers.
D.C. public space laws and encampment sweeps target people that live unsheltered. A National Law Center study titled “No Safe Place” documented that from 2011 to 2014, city-wide bans on camping in public increased across the nation by 60 percent, city-wide bans on loitering, loafing, and vagrancy increased by 35 percent, city-wide bans on sitting or lying down in specific public places increased by 43 percent, and bans on sleeping in vehicles increased by 119 percent.
“It’s legal right now for businesses to turn someone away who appears homeless,” Michael Santos of the NLCHP said in an interview. “This [bill] would make that illegal.”
In 2012, Rhode Island became the first state to introduce a Homeless Bill of Rights, and a year later Illinois and Connecticut passed similar legislation. These bills protect the privacy and personal property of homeless individuals and provide for their right to vote and enjoy equal treatment by state agencies, equal access to employment opportunities and medical care, and the right of free access to public spaces.
Three cities have also passed similar homeless rights resolutions and advocates are campaigning for “Right to Rest” bills in California, Colorado, and Oregon that specifically counteract public space and vagrancy laws that criminalize the homeless. The most ambitious of these bills would have provided services such as adequate housing and shelter, clean restrooms and hygiene centers, non-emergency health care, and even “access to income sufficient for survival,” but it failed to pass in California because providing these services would have been too costly.
The Stoops amendment does not include protection against encampment sweeps and discriminatory enforcement of laws regulating loitering and panhandling, nor does it provide free access to parks and other public facilities. Grosso hopes that these efforts would be included in the Homeless Bill of Rights being drafted.
The Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment Act was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety to be reviewed after D.C. Council’s August recess.