A homeless woman begs for money at an intersection in Detroit, Michigan. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
For people experiencing homelessness, the trauma of losing access to housing is a major burden that’s often worsened by the barriers people face when trying to find housing, employment or access public services and medical care.
Folks experiencing homelessness often face a Catch-22 when applying for work without a permanent address, including discomfort in applying using the address for a shelter where they may be living, concerns of discrimination if an employer finds they are living in a shelter, and potential conflicts between working hours and shelter curfews, said Kaitie Giza, the engagement manager for the Homeless Action Network of Detroit.
In order to access housing people often need a driver license or a birth certificate to prove their identity, Giza said. However, if someone doesn’t have access to those documents they will usually need one document to get another.
“Every document requires that you need another document to access it. And if you have none of those documents, then you just feel really stuck,” Giza said.
Exercising basic rights like voting can also prove difficult. While running a voting campaign in 2020, Giza saw a number of barriers for unhoused people registering to vote.
“The systems that are in place are, you could argue, intentionally or unintentionally set up in a way that makes it really hard for folks experiencing homelessness to vote, particularly around the need to have an address, the need to have an ID and certain things along those lines,” Giza said.
The sad fact is that we do kind of see a need for these sorts of homeless bill of rights because people experiencing homelessness have their rights infringed upon all the time. However, not always are they recognized in law or in practice that people even have these rights.
– Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center
These issues have not gone unnoticed by state lawmakers.
In July, state Rep. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) reintroduced a bill to create a “bill of rights for the homeless” granting unhoused people protections from discrimination based on their housing status, including the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies, freedom from discrimination in employment due to the lack of a permanent address, and the right to vote and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting.
The bill, House Bill 4919, states: “An individual’s rights, privileges, or access to public services must not be denied or abridged solely because the individual is homeless or perceived as being homeless. An individual who is homeless shall be granted the same rights and privileges as any other citizen of this state.”
In 2021, there were 30,113 people experiencing homelessness in Michigan according to an annual report on ending homelessness in Michigan. The report also found that Black, Indigenous and other people of color were more likely to experience homelessness.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ 2023 State of Homelessness report, 8,206 in Michigan experienced homelessness on a given night in 2022, with the Detroit, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw, Battle Creek areas and Lenawee County seeing higher numbers of people experiencing homelessness.
In Detroit, 26.7 people out of every 10,000 are experiencing homelessness, the report said.
Over the past 15 years, Michigan’s total homeless population decreased 71%, down from 28,295 individuals experiencing homelessness on a night in 2007.
In neighboring Ohio, 10,654 people experienced homelessness on a given night in 2022 compared to 5,449 people in Indiana and 9,212 people in Illinois.
In January 2022, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that roughly 582,500 people in a single night were experiencing homelessness. While 60% of those individuals were in emergency shelters, safe havens or transitional housing programs, the remaining 40% did not have shelter.
Black and Indigenous people were also overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness nationwide, according to the report.
“When there are communities that are particularly under attack, or vulnerable due to discrimination or exclusion, we as human beings are unlikely to address their needs and acknowledge all of the unique obstacles that they encounter unless we name it,” Dievendorf said.
“We often need it pointed out that these things are lacking in the first place, because if it’s not our experience, we don’t know all the places that other people can’t access and don’t have the benefit of,” they said.
Dievendorf’s bill also notes that those aged 13 to 23 often suffer from deprivation because they are homeless or are perceived as homeless.
Jennifer Erb-Downward, director of Housing Stability Programs and Policy Initiatives at University of Michigan Poverty Solutions, said an estimated 8% of children in Michigan will experience homelessness by the time they finish elementary school, with roughly 1 in 10 K-12 students experiencing homelessness. There are also stark racial disparities, with 1 in 7 Black students and 1 in 7 Hispanic students experiencing homelessness, she said.
The proposed bill of rights would grant unhoused people access to the following rights, without discrimination based on their housing status:
- The right to use and move freely in public spaces, including, but not limited to, public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings, in the same manner as any other individual.
- The right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies.
- Freedom from discrimination in employment due to the lack of a permanent mailing address or having a mailing address that is a shelter or social service provider.
- The right to emergency medical care.
- The right to vote, register to vote and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting without discrimination due to housing status, if the individual is a United States citizen.
- Protection from having records or information provided to a homeless shelter or service provider disclosed to state, municipal and private authorities without proper legal authority, as well as the right to confidentiality of personal records and information in line with limits on disclosure established by requirements under a federal homeless management information system, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 or the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
- A reasonable expectation of privacy in the individual’s personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence.
- The right for a homeless youth to be enrolled in school without delay or discrimination because of housing status.
If these rights are violated, individuals can take civil action where the court can award appropriate injunctive and declaratory relief, actual damages and reasonable attorney fees and costs to the person who brings the case.
Eric Hufnagel, CEO of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, said work on the bills began in 2015 by a group of state, regional and local organizations pulled together at Johnson’s request to discuss what a homeless bill of rights might look like.
“The thing that we talked about collectively was trying to focus on some legislation that would not simply be aspirational … something that would be more like aspirational principles versus enforceable rights,” Hufnagel said.
“We limited it really to: What would be the areas where there could be some enforceable rights? Where could there be some mechanisms to make sure that you can enforce it, that you can have adjudication, etc.,” Hufnagel said.
However, after Johnson resigned from the Legislature in 2018 the bill was shelved, Hufnagel said.
According to Dievendorf, the bill is part of a larger package of bills aimed at addressing housing, with the bill of rights for the homeless standing alone. The package will also include a set of bills which Dievendorf calls a renter’s bill of rights, and another package that will address housing challenges for migrant farm workers and domestic workers.
Erb-Downward said this bill takes a step forward in recognizing that homelessness should not be criminalized.
“There’s really no benefit from making it so that if you don’t have a home, you then are facing different legal fees, you’re losing your stuff. All of those things are just driving people further into poverty and making it harder to reestablish safe and stable housing,” Erb-Downward said.
“Every time we enact laws, or have policies in place that operate on structures that criminalize poverty, we are really exacerbating already very, very difficult situations that people are living with and and we’re not solving the underlying issue,” she said.
The bill’s inclusion of temporary housing in describing homelessness is critical, Erb-Downward said.
“I think it’s critical that we push back on this idea of who is homeless. We need to actually really look at our state and really look at who is struggling and it’s a widespread issue. Much, much larger than the number of people who are literally living on the street,” she said.
Homelessness is much broader than people who are living on the street, and it includes people living in temporary shelters and “doubled-up” situations where someone might be couch surfing or staying with an acquaintance or relative, Erb-Downward said.
She also praised the inclusion of a right to education for youth experiencing homelessness, which is part of federal law. While students who are unhoused have a right to equal access to education, there are still cases where youth are denied enrollment on account of their housing status.
While this bill is important, the way it would be implemented as a law is key, Erb-Downward said.
“If this law is passed, are we operating in the spirit of the law? Not just to the word of the letter of the law, but is this actually something where we are implementing our other laws, rules and policies in a way that guarantees the dignity of people who are experiencing housing instability,” she said.
Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, said people experiencing homelessness are often denied the same rights and privileges as other members of the public.
“The sad fact is that we do kind of see a need for these sorts of homeless bill of rights because people experiencing homelessness have their rights infringed upon all the time. However, not always are they recognized in law or in practice that people even have these rights,” Tars said.
In Michigan, several local governments have taken recent actions regarding homelessness.
The Grand Rapids City Commission faced strong criticism from residents over ordinances they said targeted unhoused people.
The ordinances, which passed in July, penalize an individual for “accosting” someone by an ATM or while they are eating or drinking outdoors, and would allow the city to confiscate “excess” or unattended personal property kept in parks or on sidewalks. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan had urged Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and city commissioners to reject the ordinances, which, along with a current city ordinance banning people from camping overnight in public parks, the ACLU said are unconstitutional.
In Kalamazoo, residents criticized the city for targeting unhoused people after signs were posted on the Kalamazoo Mall and in city parks saying individuals with bedding, sleeping bags or other personal belongings could face penalties for dwelling or sleeping in those places for more than two hours, MLive reported.
“There seems to be a push nationally in the wrong direction that we’re seeing more and more criminalization of homelessness,” Giza said. “We’re seeing more and more ways that folks are being punished for being in public spaces and arrested.”
While Michigan’s proposed bill of rights is similar to other bills of rights for the homeless passed in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Illinois, the non-discrimination language used in this bill does not grant unhoused people any more rights than the rest of the public, Tars said.
“This basically just says that if the public has the right to sleep in the park, then homeless people have the right to sleep in the park but it doesn’t say you can’t ban them from sleeping in the park,” Tars said.
Erb-Downward raised similar concerns about how the law will be implemented. In New York, where she worked prior to moving to Michigan, houseless people have a right to shelter. However, it is also illegal to sleep in a public library, she said.
Dievendorf explained that while this bill would not grant someone the right to live in a library and would not prevent municipalities from banning people from sleeping on the street, it does ensure people can move through the streets freely. It also asks that a houseless person have a right to privacy and their own property.
“We know that oftentimes municipalities, in thinking that there is good intent behind it, will throw away the belongings of houseless folks, move them to another piece of property where they’re less visible,” Dievendorf said.
“What we know works best is not trying to push houseless folks out of sight and out of mind, but instead, routinely bringing the resources that they need In order to get to the root of their homelessness, to the places where the homeless folks are,” they said.
Oftentimes, unhoused people are carrying everything they have, Dievendorf said. While lawmakers can consider bright-line tests for how to determine if an encampment has been abandoned, houseless people’s belongings should not be taken or thrown away if people don’t like how it looks when unhoused people don’t have anywhere else to put it, Dievendorf said.
“When we dispose of what they left at their camp because we want to make it look nicer or because we’re trying to discourage people from residing there, we have taken their life. We’ve taken their whole life,” Dievendorf said.
Tars advocated for approaches with stronger language, like the Right to Rest Acts proposed in states like California, Oregon and Colorado, which grants people the right to rest in public spaces if there aren’t private spaces to rest in. These policies also include provisions allowing someone to sleep and live in their vehicle.
“It’s stronger language. It actually preserves that right to survival,” Tars said.
“It doesn’t create special rights for people experiencing homelessness. Anybody can use it,” Tars said.
Tars also listed a proposed constitutional amendment in California that would recognize housing as a human right as an example of policies lawmakers should work towards.
Tars and Hufnagel also raised questions about the bill’s language that allows unhoused people to take civil action if their rights in the bill are violated.
“That question of civil action, I think is one of those pieces that need to be talked about a little bit more. What would that mean? How could that actually happen?” Hufnagel said.
“From a practical standpoint, you’re saying that somebody would have to file a suit against somebody. I don’t know how practical that is for the average person to be able to do that. Would that be something that would be class action suits against a municipality or a business, etc.? I don’t know what that would look like. That would have to be discussed and thought out,” Hufnagel said.
Tars noted that in the states that have already passed homeless bills of rights similar to the one proposed in Michigan have not seen much use in taking legal action.
“Whether it’s because people aren’t aware of their rights or can’t access them because they don’t have access to [legal] counsel. Access to counsel is guaranteed in criminal cases, but not in civil cases and so finding somebody just to bring a case would be difficult,” Tars said.
Dievendorf said the housing package planned for the fall will include a right to legal aid or a right to counsel. The state also increased funding for legal aid services in its state general government budget for Fiscal Year 2024, because those services are at capacity, Dievendorf said.
When working to empower individuals to access legal services, Dievendorf said it’s important to bring resources to the folks who need it, advocating for hubs where unhoused people can access services like temporary housing, food benefits, social security and mental health services.
There's really no benefit from making it so that if you don't have a home, you then are facing different legal fees, you're losing your stuff. All of those things are just driving people further into poverty and making it harder to reestablish safe and stable housing.
– Jennifer Erb-Downward, director of housing stability programs and policy initiatives at University of Michigan Poverty Solutions
If there is a location where someone can go to receive aid for all of the things that might be a challenge to them, then there would be less and less people coming back in need of emergency housing as they take care of those needs, Dievendorf said.
“One of the things that we can ensure is available at those locations is information on the fact that they do have legal rights, were this bill to be passed. And the legal help would be free,” they said.
“I will say the main concern I’ve heard from folks is protecting houseless folks won’t take care of homelessness. And my answer is yes, you’re right. But it’s one thing that is absolutely necessary and that’s why we are going to be doing all of the things in order to ensure that we are changing the way we address homelessness.”
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