On Wednesday, the Colorado House held a hearing on an innovative way to address homelessness: a bill of rights.
The bill would grant homeless people the right to move freely, accept and eat food, maintain privacy over their belongings, and rest in public by sitting, leaning, kneeling, standing, squatting, and lying down. If these rights were violated, they would be able to seek civil relief through the courts and potentially get paid up to $1,000 per violation.
While a vote on the measure was delayed to a not yet determined date, the legislature heard testimony from homeless residents themselves. Nicole Siseneros, a homeless woman living in Boulder County, told legislators, “I’ve been kicked away, flashlight in your face, officers kicking you and telling you to move along, ticket in hand.” She said she’s been ticketed 15 times for violating loitering and camping ordinances. A former House member also testified about his experience living in his car after he left office in 1989. “They are human beings,” he said. “They have human rights.” The hearing is expected to continue next week as well.
The bill comes just weeks after the University of Colorado Denver released a report surveying the some of the state’s more than 10,000 homeless people, which found widespread interactions with the police. Ninety percent reported being harassed by the police, 70 percent had been ticketed for something related to their homelessness, and more than a third had been arrested. But Colorado is not alone in criminalizing homelessness. In fact, an increasing number of ordinances at the city and state level have been enacted to penalize the homeless for things like sleeping in public, begging, and sharing food.
Some places have gone in the other direction and pursued homeless bills of rights similar to the one under consideration in the state. One was recently passed by the Indianapolis legislature, only to be later vetoed by the mayor. But such laws are already on the books in Connecticut, Illinois, and Rhode Island, while California and Oregon are currently considering their own bills.
Some of the bills have been predicated on the idea that it’s not just a more humane approach, but a more cost-effective one. And cities and states have found that housing the homeless, rather than leaving them outside to have interactions with the police and rely on emergency medical care, saves tens of thousands to even millions.