Should homelessness be a protected trait — like sex, race, age and many others — in the city of Madison?
The city’s advisory Equal Opportunities Commission is beginning to look into adding homelessness to the list of characteristics which may not be considered in housing, employment and public accommodation under Madison’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance.
Interest in exploring whether homeless people should be designated a protected class to ensure their civil rights goes back to a controversy early this year about efforts to dissuade the homeless from hanging out in the lobby of the City-County Building, committee Chairman Brian Benford told me.
“It’s been on our radar,” he said.
Concern among committee members was renewed this fall, after an incident in which the gear of a half-dozen homeless people was confiscated from a plaza at the top of State Street and disposed of by city employees, Benford said.
“People felt discriminated against,” Benford said, adding that that recent incident was among a number that seemed to “make it criminal to be homeless in Madison.”
Homeless people increasingly are lodging that complaint against local officials. When an encampment of homeless people returned last month to the vacant lot on East Washington Avenue from which they were evicted last spring, for example, they raised a banner asking “No legal place to go?”
The group has since been evicted twice from sites where camping is not permitted, although Dane County officials are making an exception to rules to allow the group to stay the winter at Token Creek Park north of the city. And Madison Police Chief Noble Wray — without acknowledging wrongdoing by his department — apologized to the homeless people whose property was confiscated on State Street.
The city’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance already specifies a long list of characteristics that may not be considered in considering someone for housing, employment, public accommodations or the use of city-owned facilities: sex, race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry, citizenship status, age, handicap/disability, marital status, source of income, arrest record, conviction record, less-than-honorable discharge, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic identity, political beliefs, familial status, student status, domestic partnership status, and status as a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking.
Anyone who has been found to have discriminated against a class of people specifically protected in the Madison Equal Opportunities ordinance may be liable for damages, said Lucia Nunez, director of the city’s Department of Civil Rights. That might include reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses, back pay, and other economic and non-economic losses, including emotional injury, according to the city’s ordinance.
Nunez said Civil Rights staff had just begun to research the possibility of adding homelessness to the list of protected classes and that “public accommodations” seems like an area in which protections for the homeless might make sense. That would include access to motels, restaurants, taverns, and other services open to the public.
In response to a spike in violence against homeless people, some states are adding a “hate crime” enhancer to sentences for such crimes, Nunez said, adding that she has not heard of many local incidents of physical violence against homeless people.
A study of hate crimes against the homeless released by the National Coalition for the Homeless early this year reported three such crimes in Wisconsin between 1999 and 2010, compared to 213 in California and 177 in Florida.
But one state — Rhode Island — earlier this year passed a law to prevent the kind of discrimination that Benford says Equal Opportunities commissioners here are concerned about. Rhode Island’s homeless “bill of rights,” declares that homeless people have an equal right to jobs, housing, services and public space, guaranteeing the right to use public sidewalks, buildings, parks and transportation without discrimination based on housing status — as well as a reasonable expectation to privacy with respect to their personal belongings.
The law has attracted a lot of attention among advocates for the homeless, and some municipal leaders too. The town of Fairfax, Calif., this fall urged that state’s legislature to add a similar bill of rights to its fair housing and employment act.
These efforts to protect homeless people’s rights come as many cities have moved to criminalize homelessness by banning “urban camping,” (Denver); restricting where food can be distributed to the homeless (Dallas); and outlawing sitting on the sidewalk (defeated by voters in Berkeley, Calif., in the November election).