On Monday, the city council of Indianapolis passed a “Homeless Bill of Rights” to protect its population without housing, one of the first cities to do so.
As of January, volunteers counted 1,897 city residents going without shelter or permanent housing, a 19 percent increase over the year before. The bill ensures this population a number of rights, such as the right to move freely in public spaces, a reasonable expectation of privacy for their belongings, equal treatment by city agencies, and access to emergency medical care.
It also restricts the ways the city can interact with them. It would be required to give 15 days notice before displacing a homeless person from an encampment, although an amendment gives police the power to circumvent the requirement in case of emergency. The city would also have to store a displaced person’s belongings for 60 days and connect him with nonprofits that offer transitional housing and other assistance.
The version passed on Monday was narrowed from an original one that didn’t have enough support. A provision that would have protected the homeless from employment discrimination was taken out, as was funding for a new homeless engagement center, which has been broken out into a different proposal.
The bill is not yet law, and it’s possible that the city’s Republican mayor Greg Ballard could veto it. His administration pushed for new restrictions on the use of public spaces last year as a way to address panhandling. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.
But supporters point out that the bill isn’t just about increased protection for homeless people. It’s also about finances. “It is much more cost-effective to provide support services and assistance to those experiencing homelessness in our city, than to arrest them,” Councilman LeRoy Robinson (D) told The IndyStar. There’s plenty of evidence to back this idea up. A study in Florida found it costs the state $31,065 in medical and incarceration costs per each chronically homeless person left on the streets every year, compared to the $10,051 cost of giving the same person permanent housing and services like health care and job training. A shelter in Fort Lyon, Colorado will cost less than $17,000 per person versus the $43,240 it costs to leave her unsheltered and interacting with the police and hospital systems. An apartment complex intended for the homeless in Charlotte, North Carolina saved $1.8 million.
The Indianapolis bill is modeled after laws in Rhode Island and Illinois. Rhode Island’s law enshrines their right to move freely in public spaces, get equal treatment by state and municipal agencies, seek emergency medical care, and expect privacy for their belongings as well as additional protection from employment discrimination, voter discrimination, and the disclosure of records and information. Illinois protects the homeless from discrimination based on homeless status, including in employment. Connecticut also enacted a bill of rights in 2013 with nearly identical provisions as Rhode Island’s. Seven other states and two cities have considered such legislation.
While the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless says that “discrimination and harassment continue” even after the law took effect, it has given legal groups that defend the homeless an important tool.
These laws also mark a sharp departure from the way many places are dealing with their homeless populations. There has been an increase in nearly every kind of ordinance that criminalizes aspects of life as a homeless person, such as prohibitions on sleeping in public, lying down in public, begging, and sharing food in public. These laws only increase the likelihood that the homeless have run-ins with the police without addressing the root cause of homelessness: a lack of affordable housing.