Virtually All Homeless People Experience Discrimination

CREDIT: Shawn Davis

A disabled army vet who is homeless asks passersby for help in a tony area of Washington D.C.

More than two-thirds of homeless people say they have been discriminated against by private businesses and law enforcement, according to a new report.

The survey, conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), asked 142 homeless individuals in the Washington D.C. area about their experience with local businesses and public officials. All but 10 respondents reported that they had felt discriminated against because of their housing status.

More than 70 percent reported they had experienced discrimination from private businesses. For example, one respondent noted that they had been told they couldn’t enter a coffee shop “due to my attire, push cart, my extra bags.”

Two in three said they had been unfairly targeted by law enforcement, including one individual who “explained she was told by a DC police officer not to lie down on the bench to sleep, she could only sit up to sleep.”

Finally, approximately half of the homeless individuals interviewed said they had experienced discrimination from medical services and 44 percent from social services. The survey noted multiple people who said they’d been refused treatment because health providers didn’t believe they actually needed care. “When I got stabbed the paramedic stated that nothing was wrong with me,” one respondent said. “He said I just wanted to get out of the rain.”

The survey notes that “these testimonies are noteworthy because they do not depict unique and isolated discriminatory acts,” but instead that “discrimination is typical in the lives of the homeless people.” It is the first academically sound survey of discrimination and the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, NCH’s Director of Community Organizing.

Much of this economic profiling is illegal in Washington D.C. under the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005, which ensures that homeless people are able to receive social services without discrimination. But the fact that it’s still occurring underscores the need for action.

NCH recommended that D.C. consider passing a Homeless Bill of Rights — which has already passed in states like Connecticut, Illinois, and Rhode Island — to outlaw these common forms of discrimination.