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).

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(19) comments

45acp
45acp

Only in Madistan would idiocy like this receive any consideration. Why would anyone want to start or maintain a business in that unholy city when I would be forced to hire any vagrant, bum, sexual deviant or misfit that came along? You people are literally insane and this sorry excuse for a news outlet is every bit as bad.

classic
classic

More Madison foolishness and guess who will be paying for it the taxpayers. Only the idiots in Madison would keep voting the same people n office. When are they going to start protecting the person who goes to work everyday.

midwestguy
midwestguy

Trust a republican to expend more energy complaining about a "redefinition" of an abused demographic, than to actually think of solutions to the problem. Whether or not this action is legally viable, the real issue is what to do about the homeless issue in general. The longer Madison stays in denial, the worse the problem will get.

Ralph MaGee
Ralph MaGee

So when are we going to have a protected class for the average tax-paying homeowner?

happydays
happydays

yeah right- the leaders of this city need to be committed

toobad
toobad

Madison sure has a knack for wasting taxpayer money on all sorts of committees and commissions.

GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN
GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN

Having 25 or more protected classes in Madison is enough. If you can't already fit under the rubrics of one of these victimhood/entitlement classes, you're not trying very hard.

Further dividing and tribalizing the electorate into some sort of class or societal identity is arbitrary and wrong-headed.

Rather, we should seek to find our commonalities. We should identify those values that we share in our communities and families as fellow American citizens. What responsibilites do we have because we all belong to the human race. We should also be aware that those are constitutional rights, granted by God, not some local unit of government like the City's Dept. of Civil Rights.

Big government, nanny-state socialists and other bureaucratic kleptocrats should get out of the way and enable and encourage private charitable groups like churches to deliver the help that's needed. Not only can they do it more cost effectively, they can do it better.

If the grievence-mongers running the City of Madison's Dept. of Civil Rights truly cared about homeless "civil rights", they wouldn't allow the abomination of the "Obamaville" car-campground at Union Corners to continue to exist.

Veritas vos liberabit.

Mr_Deeks
Mr_Deeks

After reviewing the long list of existing protected classes; I cannot believe that the homeless people are not covered as a sub-class. Heck, even Old White Men are protected under the gender, color and age classes.

jd33
jd33

As long as none of them are strait white men than they are already covered.

snootyelites
snootyelites

Oh No! Before you do that you should consider men with Erectile Dysfunction - its not only a disability, there is even medicine for it! Where are you Viagra lobby? LOL

AllAmerican11B
AllAmerican11B

This is preposterous!

Next we will be creating a "special" protected class of people that can't swim.

Billie
Billie

This is another step along the way to removing any logical screening criteria based on a persons actaul performance. How can a landlord assess a person's ability to pay rent if a person has no housing history?

Porchlight just added about 50 new beds to the existing pool of programs aimed at helping homeless transition into permanent housing. Most of the programs are publicly funded. (City and County with a little Federal money) Which comes from the taxes that landlords pay.

Extending "protected status" to the homeless, might be a violation of Wisconsin state law.

Robert James
Robert James

OK, this is absurd. "Homelessness" is not a -trait-, and does not deserve some kind of special class definition for use as a legal protection. I do understand what they're trying to accomplish with this, but they'd be better off focusing on better enforcement of existing laws.

TopOfCenter
TopOfCenter

I know the perfect solution: an advisory referendum.

Problem solved.

Hogzilla
Hogzilla

I don't know, we'll probably have to form a committee to decide whether or not we should form a committee to decide whether or not we should have an advisory referendum. That's the process, we don't want to mess with the process.

GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN
GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN

@Hogzilla,

This proposal by some unelected bureaucrats to change the law, i.e., the Madison General Ordinances, to include "homeless" as a "protected class" is brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department.

No thanks, We have enough departments in the ineffective government department.

Woofda!!!

Good Dog, Happy Man

Hogzilla
Hogzilla

Whoosh....

bosco
bosco

Ok, the question was asked, the obvious answer is no, so let us move on to the next wacko question.

TadLance
TadLance

Some protection for other areas is warranted but adding "status" after status to this is ridiculous. I was half expecting to see "unqualified candidate" at the end of the list of things that can't be discriminated against.

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