Everyone needs to sleep and eat, to use the bathroom, and sometimes to simply sit and rest.

Yet in attempting to take care of such basic human necessities, homeless people may face prejudice, and sometimes arrest under local laws.

In response, advocates across the country are working to pass legislation meant to protect  people from discrimination and prosecution due to their lack of housing.  The District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act of 1977 offers protection to a total of 19 classes of people based upon certain factors including race, religion, national origin, gender identity, source of income and personal appearance when seeking employment, housing, access to educational institutions and public accommodations.

But local homeless advocates say the District also needs a law that specifically protects the rights of homeless people: a Homeless Bill of Rights.

Homeless bills of rights have already been enacted in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, and the United States territory of Puerto Rico. The bills are designed not only protect against common forms of discrimination, they can also help people experiencing homelessness realize those rights that most of society takes for granted, such as the right to freely use public spaces and the right to equal treatment from government agencies, according to experts at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP): They prohibit discrimination against homeless people in housing, employment and public benefits.

“Homeless bills of rights can provide very practical tools that help people out of homelessness and into self-sufficiency,” noted NLCHP executive director Maria Foscarinis in a statement. “They can also lay a legal foundation to end homelessness by recognizing that housing is an essential human right.”

To help assess the problem of discrimination locally, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) recently conducted a survey of  homeless men and women in the District. An overwhelming number of respondents said they had experience discrimination. The findings help bolster the case for the passage of  a Homeless Bill of Rights in the District,  said Wyatt Bensken, an intern at NCH who headed up the survey.

“The purpose [of the Bill] is that no one is discriminated against because of their housing status,”  Bensken told attendees gathered for the April meeting of the Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations (COHHO). “We needed to provide a strong foundation for here in the District and across the country saying ‘yes we need this legislation, and we need it now.” noted Bensken.

Such anti-discrimination laws are also being considered in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Massachusetts. In some places, the debate over the need for such laws has expanded to include discussion about the need for amenities such as public restrooms. In others, detractors have questioned the need for homeless bills of rights, worrying such laws encourage unhealthy and undesirable behavior at the expense of the wider community’s interest in maintaining clean and safe public and private spaces.

At the COHHO meeting, homeless advocate Eric Sheptock said he could appreciate the nuances of such arguments. “You should maintain a certain level of hygiene in order to be sanitary,” he said. “I know places like Starbucks that do serve homeless people.”

Of the 142 District homeless people who responded to the NCH survey, 132 said they had experienced discrimination due to their housing status, stated Bensken. “We made sure to highlight the ‘because you were homeless’ factor in the survey,” he stressed.  The respondents reported a variety of problems with police, business people, in addition to medical and social service providers.  One said a police officer told her she could not lie down on a park bench but needed to sleep sitting up.  Another said she was turned away at a coffee shop due to her clothing, her push cart and extra bags.  Sixty-seven percent said they had faced discrimination from law enforcement personnel; nearly half said they experienced discrimination from medical services and almost forty-four percent from social services due to their homelessness.

More than seventy percent said they had been discriminated against by private businesses.  Current law related to how private businesses are required to accommodate homeless people is “kind of a gray area” acknowledged Bensken.  He said he hoped a Homeless Bill of Rights would add clarity.  The next step in the campaign for a Homeless Bill of Rights in the District of Columbia is to bring the results of the survey to the attention of the DC City Council.