Growing number of city councils consider legislation as state lawmakers eye proposals to end criminalization of homeless

Indianapolis became the first U.S. city to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights measure this week — the latest success for a national campaign to end criminalization of the homeless.

Indianapolis’ proposal, passed on Monday and awaiting a signature from the mayor, would protect the rights of homeless people to move freely in public spaces, to receive equal treatment from city agencies, to obtain emergency medical care, to vote and to maintain privacy for personal property, Indy Star, a local newspaper, reported.

The bill would also require the city to give a homeless person 15 days notice before requiring them to leave a camp, the newspaper said. Authorities would be required to store any displaced person’s property for 60 days as well as refer them to nonprofit organizations that could provide services and transitional housing.

“It is much more cost-effective to provide support services and assistance to those experiencing homelessness in our city than to arrest them,” Indianapolis councilman LeRoy Robinson said. “Sadly, our city had chosen the latter.” Robinson is the sponsor of the legislation in the city council.

Activists are pushing for similar protections in other cities, including Washington, D.C.; Madison, Wisconsin; and Duluth, Minnesota. The laws would guarantee the rights of the homeless to carry out basic human functions such as sitting, standing, eating and sleeping in public areas. Duluth’s city council has passed a measure identifying the need for such a bill, and advocates are working on a bill in for the city of Madison, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organization for the National Coalition for the Homeless. Legislation to add homelessness to Washington, D.C.’s anti-discrimination law may be introduced this spring, Stoops added.

The campaign comes amid a rise in the nationwide homeless population, and in laws targeting them, since the 2008 recession. Advocates say these laws are aimed at removing those deemed undesirable from public spaces, and that they subject homeless people to police harassment or arrest for carrying out activities that everyone must do — but only some have to do in public areas.