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City Considers Bill Extending Anti-Discrimination Ordinance To Atheists And The Homeless

CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS
CREDIT: SHAWN DAVIS

There is no shortage of hardships that many homeless people regularly encounter, from the apparent — crushing poverty and mental illness — to the more subtle — navigating bureaucracy and finding a public restroom.

But homeless people in Madison, Wisconsin may soon have new legal protections against one of the most nefarious problems: discrimination.

On Tuesday, the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission will consider whether to add homelessness and atheism to its list of protected classes, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

If the measure, proposed by Alderwoman Anita Weier, is adopted, it would protect both homeless people and atheists against discrimination in employment and housing. If an individual or business is found to be discriminating against homeless people or atheists, Weier’s bill would impose a fine and restitution.

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Discrimination against homeless job applicants is particularly pervasive, preventing many from breaking out of a cycle of poverty. For instance, though homeless individuals can use the address of a shelter on their resume, some employers are on the lookout for these addresses and avoid such people. Even setting aside discrimination based solely on their status as homeless, such individuals often have major employment gaps on their resume or a felony on their record, severely diminishing their employment prospects. Similar factors prevent many individuals from securing housing.

Notably, though, Weier’s bill only extends protections against discrimination in public areas and places of business to atheists, not homeless individuals. According to the State Journal, Weier opted against extending protections for homeless people because of incidents that have taken place in public buildings, such as urinating or defecating in public.

Paring down the bill may give it a greater chance of passing, but it falls short of protecting homeless people from some of the most common forms of discrimination they face regularly. According to a 2014 survey from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), more than 70 percent of homeless individuals have experienced discrimination from private businesses. One of the most common forms of discrimination is barring them from entering because of their appearance or the fact that they’re carrying bags. Michael Stoops, NCH’s Director of Community Organizing, noted that instead of being “unique and isolated discriminatory acts,” the survey shows that “discrimination is typical in the lives of the homeless people.”

Madison isn’t the only place considering extending discrimination protections to homeless people. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Illinois have all passed statewide homeless bills of rights to protect individuals from discrimination. Activists are working to get similar bills passed in California, Oregon, and Colorado.