Would a homeless person’s bill of rights protect the the city’s most vulnerable from discrimination? Or tie the hands of city police who need to enforce the law?
That question was at the center of a three-hour public hearing about how best to codify the city’s support for homeless residents.
A group of alders heard those disparate positions on Tuesday night from roughly two dozen city officials, homelessness advocates, and homeless residents during a Human Services Committee public hearing held in the Aldermanic Chambers on the second floor of City Hall.
The hearing dealt exclusively with two proposals that the city’s Homeless Advisory Commission has been working on for three years in conjunction with the Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic: a Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and a Resolution to Decriminalize Homelessness.
Around 60 people filled the chambers to listen in on, and participate in, the debate about the proposed legislation.
Click here to download copies of both proposed bills.
Three perspectives rose to the top as the alders heard hour after hour of public testimony on the items.
The drafters of the proposed bills argued that a local bill of rights and a local commitment to decriminalize homelessness would provide a more detailed, explicit, New Haven-specific underpinning to a similar document passed by the state in 2013. Enshrining such commitments in city law, they argued, would allow for better tracking of police enforcement of laws against loitering and public camping, which they said disproportionately affect the homeless.
Assistant Police Chief Racheal Cain and city Corporation Counsel John Rose, on the other hand, argued that the passage of such laws as is might in fact encourage the police to discriminate against the homeless by requiring them to treat the homeless as a special class of citizen. The homeless are already afforded the same rights and respect that all other city residents are legally entitled to, they argued.
“Homelessness to the New Haven Police Department is not a crime,” Cain said. “That is our philosophy.”
While a half dozen homeless residents passionately testified in support of the proposed legislation, citing the bills as necessary bulwarks against discrimination and as critical signifiers dignity and self-respect for the city’s most vulnerable.
The alders on the committee ultimately decided to table the two proposals, leaving them in committee so that the alders, the Homeless Advisory Commission, and city officials can continue to refine them before resubmitting them for a vote.
“My strong belief is that we are not done yet,” said Fair Haven Alder and Human Services Committee member Kenneth Reveiz. “I think this is a really strong foundation. There’s a lot of momentum.”
Expanding On State Law
The authors of the two proposed bills spoke first, laying a foundation for the alders of the purposes of both proposals (which can be read at the bottom of this article.)
“No evidence suggests that homeless people as a group are more criminally inclined than the population as a whole,” said John Huetner, the chair of the city’s Homeless Advisory Commission. And yet, he said, city police, business owners, medical providers, and landlords still treat them as uniquely unworthy of respect and equal access to services.
“We are clearly dealing with a national problem,” he said. “We are also dealing with a pervasive cultural mindset.”
The two proposals before the alders, he argued, would build off of the state’s 2013 homeless bill of rights to ensure that homeless New Haveners are free from discrimination in public spaces, at hospitals, at the ballot box, and when looking for a bathroom and a place to sleep.
The state law, passed by the state legislature and signed by former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2013, guarantees homeless people seven specific rights: the right to move freely in public spaces without harassment or intimidation from police in the same manner as other residents; the right to equal opportunities for employment; the right to receive emergency medical care; the right to register to vote and to vote; the right to have personal information protected; the right to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property; and the right to receive equal treatment by state and municipal agencies.
“It’s important that we understand that this is more comprehensive,” Huetner said about the local proposals. “We’re including the Bill of Rights areas that are in the state statute. We’re adding to them and we’re building on them.”
The city law expands on the state’s definition of a homeless person from someone who does not have a “fixed or regular residence” to someone who lacks a “fixed, regular, and adequate residence.”
It also declares that homeless people have the right not just to move freely in public spaces, but to sit, lie down, sleep, and rest in public spaces as both individuals and in groups “without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.”
It adds the “right to personal safety,” the “right to sit,” and the “right to social exchange” to city homeless people’s guaranteed protections. And it prohibits landlords from discriminating based on housing status, and reaffirms the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ statement that safe, affordable, healthy, permanent housing is a human right.
“This proposed Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights would make New Haven the first city in the state to integrate into local law the state’s landmark 2013 Homeless Bill of Rights,” said Alison Frankel, a former Yale Law student who helped draft the proposals and who co-authored the 2016 report, “Forced into Breaking the Law: The Criminalization of Homelessness in Connecticut.”
“The ordinance would reaffirm New Haven’s commitment to treat all people fairly,” she said.
Amity/Beaver Hills Alder and Human Services Committee Vice-Chair Richard Furlow asked the bills’ authors if a bill of rights reserved just for homeless residents does a disservice to other groups of residents, such as African Americans or LGBTQ+ residents, also deserving of explicit protection from discrimination.
Perhaps, he suggested, the alders should instead consider adopting a bigger-tent declaration more akin to the U.N.‘s Universal Declariaton of Human Rights.
“We hope that the committee considers this is a start,” Frankel said. “But certainly not as a ceiling.”
“The resolution essentially is telling the rest of the state that we in New Haven prioritize this issue,” Huetner said. “You have to start somewhere.”
Frankel also underscored that the two proposed bills call for the city police department to collect data on interactions with homeless residents, so that local government and government watchdogs can better track which laws are being enforced against the homeless and how often.
Frankel singled out three local laws in particular, regarding loitering, park curfews, and public camping, that she believes the police enforce with greater prejudice against homeless people than against residents with stable housing. But since police do not collect data on the housing status of people they arrest, she said, it’s impossible for watchdogs like her to prove that that is the case.
The New Haven-specific proposals do not requiring repealing any existing laws, she said. “It simply affirms what is already true: that you cannot treat people differently based on their homeless status.”
Police: Homeless Aren’t Discriminated Against
From the perspectives of the city’s top lawyer and one of its police chiefs, the two proposals are largely unnecessary, and potentially a hindrance to the prejudice-free enforcement of existing law.
“We do not target homeless individuals merely because they are homeless,” Asst. Chief Cain said. When asked how the department could best assess the potential impact of a homelessness decriminalization resolution, she responded, “I don’t know how I would assess something that we’re not already criminalizing.”
Cain said that police do not single out homeless people for disproportionate arrests. However, she said, officers are sometimes called to address behaviors like public drunkenness that homeless individuals, but not just homeless individuals, engage in.
Furlow asked Cain how an officer is trained to respond when the police get a call about illegal behavior, and then discover that the suspect is likely homeless.
Cain gave an example of a business owner calling the police about someone loitering outside of their establishment. She said officers are trained to make contact with business owner who made the call, and the locate the person being complained about. If that latter person is just walking around, not aggravating customers, and not blocking passage into and out of the business, she said, then police will have a conversation with them and likely leave them be.
But if the person is aggressively panhandling or blocking access to the business, she said, police will ask them to leave. If they refuse and if officers fear an escalation of illegal behavior, then they may make an arrest, or drop them off at the hospital for detox, or encourage them to sign up for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.
“If we can make the business owner happy and not arrest the individual, that’s the goal,” she said.
She said the department does not currently track the housing status of people officers arrest for the same reason they don’t track suspects by gender or race. “We don’t track particular types of people,” she said.
She also said that the department does not have any general order on the books specifically pertaining to how officers should interact with homeless residents.
“We know that we cannot arrest ourselves out of this situation,” she said, and said the department is open to looking into the potential addition of housing status to the standard list of name, address, and age that it captures for every person police arrest.
Rose, meanwhile, was even less sympathetic to the proposals as presented. Citing his own background growing up with 11 siblings right on the edge of poverty, Rose said he is certainly sympathetic to the plight of city residents without stable housing. “I don’t forget where I come from,” he said. But, he said, he did not support the legislation as currently written.
The day before the hearing, Rose’s office sent a legal memo to the alders that he had written along with one of his department’s interns, Sergio Hruszko, a second-year law student at Quinnipiac University and the founder of a local chapter of a libertarian youth legal organization called Young Americans for Liberty.
“In its current form the city should not adopt this proposal,” Hruszko wrote in the memo. “The city should take bits and pieces of it but for the most part, Connecticut already has a homeless bill of rights and some of the rights being proposed are rights people already have.”
Click here to download the full legal memo.
The memo argues that the local proposals are largely redundant with the 2013 state law, and that, where they are more specific, they open up potential dangers to public safety by allowing homeless people the right to defecate and urinate “in public locations” and potential strains to the city budget by guaranteeing rights to safe, affordable, healthy, and permanent housing.
Homeless Weigh In
An hour and a half into the public hearing, after the proposals’ authors and city officials had had a chance to present to the alders, other members of the public, including a half dozen homeless residents, got their turn to weigh in on the proposals.
All of the homeless residents who spoke unequivocally praised the two proposals, saying that they would protect the homeless from discrimination and recognize in both symbolic and legal language their intrinsic dignity and worth as human beings.
Wade Walker said he lives on the streets of downtown New Haven. “The greatest man alive, ever, was Jesus Christ,” he said. “And he was homeless.”
The police and the rest of society prey on the homeless, he said, as if they were engaged in some kind of foxhunt.
“I’m not embarrassed to be homeless,” he said. “What I’m embarrassed about is people with common sense who treat the homeless as if they’re dysfunctional, as if they’re the problem.”
Fifty-seven-year old homeless activist Bealton Dumas agreed, almost breaking into tears as he described the daily humiliation of being homeless and waking up on the street, trying to find a bathroom to clean yourself up in, getting hustled along by the police and looked down upon by passerby.
He said he recently visited the hospital because he was sick, and that a nurse told him to go outside if he had to vomit. “But I’m not coming to you as a homeless person right now,” Dumas said. “I’m coming as a patient.”
“Homelessness is a moment,” he said, and an experience that anyone can find themselves in with one bad accident, one unlucky turn of fate.
Chelsi Torres, a homeless teen who works with the Grand Avenue social service agency Youth Continuum, described the difficulties of getting adequate medical care and retaining a sense of dignity without a state ID, a regular income, and a permanent address.
“We should really adopt this bill of rights,” she said, “and make everyone’s life a little bit easier.”
And Room for All coalition member Claudette Kidd described how her family’s sudden plunge into homelessness after the death of a family member. They ended up in a shelter, she said, where they were routinely mistreated by shelter staff and fellow guests alike.
She said these two proposals would serve as powerful rhetorical and legal deterrents to homeless residents’ potential mistreatment at the hands of police, shelter staff, or any other residents.
“When you have people who treat you like crap on the bottom of your shoe,” she said, “that’s why we have this.”
Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights
Below is an excerpt from the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights. Click here to download the full proposal.
Every person, regardless of their housing status, has the following rights:
a) The Right to Enjoy Public Space. The right to use and move freely in public spaces, including sitting, lying down, sleeping, or resting in public spaces, both individually and while assembling in groups, which shall include but not be limited to public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation, and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person or groups and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status;
b) The Right to Employment Fairness. The right not to face discrimination in seeking, obtaining, or maintaining employment due to the lack of a permanent residence or a permanent mailing address, or because the mailing address is that of a homeless shelter, or a homeless or social services provider;
c) The Right to Medical Care and Dignity in Meeting Basic Needs. The right to medical care, free from discrimination based on housing status. The opportunity to perform basis needs, such as to defecate, urinate, and to access clean water and other living necessities, in public locations and facilities, which includes public parks and buildings, with dignity and relative privacy under hygienic circumstances and conditions, in clean, safe, highly accessible facilities, free to all persons regardless of housing status;
d) The Right to Vote. The right to vote, register to vote, and receive any documentation required by law to prove identity for voting, without discrimination due to housing status;
e) The Right to Personal Property and Privacy. The right to protection of personal property includes: 1) the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence; and 2) the preservation and safeguarding of un-housed peoples’ property, including personal identification and records, including documentation of government benefits, legal proceedings, and familial records;
f) The Right to Personal Safety. The right to personal safety, which shall include protection from violence based upon housing status and effective law enforcement response to such incidents; 2) the right to temporary shelter during extreme (hot or cold) weather; and 3) the right for families to stay together in shelters.
g) The Right to Sit. The right to sit, rest or sleep in temporary shelter, such as any legallyparked motor or recreational vehicle or a self-erected shelter (e.g., a tent), as permitted by law, for the purpose of immediate survival of persons, and their pets, without harassment by law
enforcement officers or others; and 2) the right to reasonable notice before encampments illegally created are swept.
h) The Right to Social Exchange. The right to give and accept food, beverages, and shelter, in public spaces or elsewhere (with permit, as others are required, where applicable), and to connect persons experiencing homelessness with organizations that provide shelter or transitional
housing and social services, such as mental health or substance abuse counseling, medical care, and employment assistance. The right also to panhandle in public spaces, and to communicate to others in other reasonable ways for other similar purposes.
i) The Right to Equal Treatment. The right to equal treatment under the law by all New Haven municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status or source of income, and equal protection of the laws and due process by law enforcement and prosecuting agencies
and the courts;
j) The Right to Housing Fairness. The right to obtain housing free from discrimination including based on housing status, source of income, arrest record, conviction, or lack of a fixed or permanent mailing address;
k) The Right to Housing. The right to safe and affordable emergency and/or transitional shelter and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, because housing is a basic human right, as stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the
right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Resolution Concerning The Decriminalization Of Homelessness
Below is an excerpt from the Resolution Concerning The Decriminalization Of Homelessness. Click here to download the full proposal.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Board of Alders of the City of New Haven, Connecticut affirms the rights of those experiencing homelessness and condemns the criminalization of homelessness.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Alders calls upon all City officials, employees, and private citizens to respect the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness, to include the review of police protocols and responses to ordinances affecting those who are homeless, with
the involvement of the Chief Administrator’s Office and appropriate New Haven Police Department personnel in the development of any changes, revisions or recommendations regarding such ordinances.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Alders calls upon the Mayor of New Haven to issue a moratorium on the enforcement of laws criminalizing homelessness, pending the aforementioned review of ordinances affecting those who are homeless.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City Clerk communicate this resolution to all City Departments, the Courts, the Governor and Attorney-General of the State of Connecticut, and the Connecticut Congressional delegations.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the provisions of this Resolution shall be severable, and if any phrase, clause, sentence or provision of this Resolution is declared by a court of competent jurisdiction to be contrary to the the Constitution of the United States or of the State of Connecticut or the applicability thereof to any agency, person, or circumstances in held invalid, the validity of the remained of this Resolution and the applicability thereof to any agency, person or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.