What America’s Most Vulnerable Need: A Bill of Rights for the Homeless

Paul Boden, a homeless rights advocate for 30 years, is helping groups around the country draft legislation to help the homeless.

January 11, 2013  |  

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Editor’s Note: In the next 10 days AlterNet will be launching an in-depth special coverage series on a wide range of stories addressing the shameful levels of growing inequality, poverty and homelessness in our nation. This interview is a preview of the topics we will be addressing. Veteran reporter Evelyn Nieves, who has covered these issues for a range of publications, will be contributing to the series.

Homeless shelters began opening en masse three decades ago, but the crisis is only getting worse. In a survey of 25 cities from every region of the country, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found more than half are experiencing a spike in homelessness. A majority of the cities said families seeking shelter were turned away for lack of space and that they expect an increase in homeless families. Yet more and more cities are addressing homelessness not by creating housing, but by banning activities such as sitting, sleeping or lying down in public, effectively making being homeless illegal.

This year, advocates for the homeless are fighting back. Until new policies and programs address the causes of homelessness–a lack of affordable housing, lagging incomes that have not kept pace with rising housing costs and the severe cuts in housing assistance programs for the poor–the nation must stop treating our most downtrodden fellow humans like criminals.

Last June, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, banning discrimination against homeless Rhode Islanders and asserting their right to use public parks, transportation and buildings like anyone else. In California, a Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB 5) was introduced last month by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, Similar bills are expected to be introduced in several other states, including Massachusetts and Oregon.

Paul Boden, an advocate for poor and homeless people for 30 years, helped draft the California legislation as organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of homeless advocacy groups from several Western states. Boden will be criss-crossing the region and the country in the coming months, working with groups hoping to help draft homeless rights bills.

For Boden, who co-founded the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness 25 years ago, ordinances designed to drive homeless people from public spaces are akin to laws that once discriminated against African Americans, Japanese Americans and the disabled. At a time when even cities considered liberal and tolerant have laws curbing the activities of the unhoused, homeless rights bills are likely to face tough public opposition. The California measure, for example, would grant legal protection to homeless people engaged “in life-sustaining activities on public property,” including sleeping, panhandling, urinating and “collecting and possessing good for recycling, even if those goods contain alcoholic residue.” 

Editorial writers have sneered at the bill. The S an Francisco Chronicle called it “a non-starter … an absurd reaction to restrictions on homeless conduct and tough-love ideas.” The M erced Sun-Star called it a “nightmare scenario.” But Boden says that by putting the laws that criminalize homeless people in a historical context and exposing how they do nothing to solve homelessness but much to demonize society’s most stigmatized members, the bills could turn the national discussion around. He spoke about the Homeless Bill of Rights strategy advocates are planning to use to force cities into moving the discussion away from homelessness as a public nuisance and toward solutions to homelessness.

Evelyn Nieves: Why a Homeless Bill of Rights?

Paul Boden: The Homeless Bill of Rights is an attempt on our part to validate in law that people regardless of their housing status have a right to exist in public space. More and more and more, we see private security, business improvement districts and policing programs with sit-lie or loitering or jaywalking or sleeping or park closures, where it really has come down to we don’t want you in this community.