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Homeless bill of rights

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There is no crime in being poor. Yet people who are experiencing homelessness are routinely criminalized for openly surviving and living in poverty. A Homeless Bill of Rights would provide people who are unhoused the same rights that other people have and the potential to reduce harm to people who are homeless.

We are asking you to make four phone calls today on Thursday July 23:


The mission of the Material Aid and Advocacy Program (MAAP) is to support and empower community members experiencing homelessness or living in poverty, through material aid, access to resources, and advocacy opportunities. 


There is no crime in being poor. Housing should be a right not a reward. Our vision is that no one is denied or loses housing because they are poor, use drugs, have a substance use disorder, are mentally ill, or have been incarcerated (best, no one is ever incarcerated). Housing is used for shelter, not profit. And that people have the ability to live in the communities they choose, plan, and with whom they want.


Ending the criminalization of being unhoused or underhoused is key to everyone’s immediate health and safety during COVID-19. Additionally, ending criminalization reduces barriers to accessing permanent housing (until those barriers are removed) and allows for a shift of resources from police to community-based and led- resources outside of the criminal legal system. To address persistent structural racism resources should first be directed to organizations run by and for Black community members as repeatedly expressed in the demands of and documented in the People’s Budget presented by Families for Justice as Healing.   

The impact of policing on people experiencing homelessness


Although elected officials are now quick to say poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorder are not crimes, people who are experiencing homelessness are routinely criminalized for openly surviving and living in poverty. The charges often are listed as trespassing, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, drinking in public, and resisting arrest. Some calls are mere “nuisance” calls that did not need a response, could have been handled within a neighborhood context, or through other non-violent communication methods; others are actual emergencies that need a non-police response of housing, medical care, de escalation, or harm reduction. 


We know that people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and their allies (private security, neighborhood watch groups, business improvement districts) who move along, destroy the property of, deny access to basic needs, and otherwise harm community members. In Boston it has been documented that 1 in 8 people arrested are homeless. According to the Boston 2019 Point in Time (PIT) Count  there were 6203 people experiencing homelessness including 2348 single adults (121 living unhoused and outside, 1867 in emergency shelter, and 360 in transitional housing). The 2348 single adults are more likely to have no place to go during both during the daytime and evening hours; the small subgroup of community members is likely disproportionately represented in the 1375 arrests. 


We know there is a connection between having been incarcerated and experiencing homelessness. A 2018 national study from the Prison Policy Initiative put numbers to the experiences of people we know: formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public with the highest rates among people who have been incarcerated more than once, who have been recently released, or are people of color and/or women.  Of those who are formerly incarcerated and homeless, Black men and Black and Latinx women are most likely to be unsheltered. 


We also know that Black people disproportionately experience homelessness. According to the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, “African- Americans compromise about 41% of the homeless population, but only 13% of the general population.” In Boston, Black people make up 47% of the homeless population, but only 25% of the overall population. In Cambridge, Black people comprise 40% of the homeless population, but only 11% of the general population. We know that Black community members experience incarceration at almost exactly this same disproportionate rate according to Prison Policy Initiative’s 2010 Census Analysis


The impact & urgency of COVID-19


Early during COVID-19, people experiencing homelessness had to choose between two bad choices: staying inside crowded congregate shelters where COVID rates would soar or leaving to live outside. Some shelters would close or reduce capacity. Neither the state nor cities or towns opened hotel rooms, dorm rooms, or housing (permanent or temporary) for people who didn’t test positive for the virus to socially isolate and live in healthy ways. As municipal buildings and businesses closed, people were left without adequate access to water (for drinking and bathing), bathrooms, food, healthcare, electricity (for the few with cell phones and/or laptops), and places to rest and sleep. 


As the streets became quieter -- unhoused people became hypervisible to the police. We know this hypervisibility can be intensified for Black and Brown residents living unhoused.  


Why a Bill of Rights?


People experiencing homelessness tell us about their experiences of criminalization, violence, and lack of access to the most basic resources. Research backs up that experience by enumerating both the criminalization of homelessness and increasing violence committed against people experiencing homelessness. The over-representation of people of color, especially Black people and formerly incarcerated Black people, calls for the need to explicitly name the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. 


 S.2735 and H.4688 provide a definition of homeless. Key parts of the bills provide the following to people experiencing homelessness:

  • Use of public spaces in the same manner as any other person; 

  • Equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies;

  • Expectation of privacy in personal property in public spaces; 

  • Fair interactions with public officials, employees, and officers [of law enforcement];

  • The ability to rest in public spaces and seek protection from adverse weather or an imminent public health emergency in a manner that does not obstruct human or vehicle traffic;

  • Access to routine and emergency medical care free from discrimination on the basis of housing status; as well as during the state of emergency declared by the governor on March 10, 2020 and for the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic access testing and health care related to the coronavirus;

  • Voting rights;

  • Freedom to practice one’s religion in public; and 

  • Protection from the disclosure of records provided to homeless shelters and service providers to state, municipal, and private entities, absent valid written authorization to do so.

Allowing people who are unhoused the same rights that other people have has the potential to reduce harm to people who are homeless. If implemented well we may be able to do things such as lower the incidence of police stealing and destroying belongings including backpacks with ID, paperwork and sentimental items such as family photos; hard-to-come by survival supplies such as sleeping bags and tents; and medicines and harm reduction supplies which keep people healthy. This bill is more likely to succeed if we are able to do it in tandem with defunding the police and reducing their footprint in each of our cities and towns. Less contact with the criminal legal system for people who are experiencing homelessness will undoubtedly lead to a reduction in incarceration. Incarceration, and multiple incarceration, are correlated with homelessness. Providing resources not policing is the answer in all of our communities. The bills do give superior court jurisdiction and the ability to award damages in connection to the violation of rights articulated in the bills. 

These bills do not afford people special rights. For example, a person experiencing homelessness cannot use a public space to rest if it is closed to the general public or requires a fee for entry. 

Critical Resistance Definition of Policing:  

Policing is a social relationship made up of a set of practices that are empowered by the state to enforce law and social control through the use of force. Reinforcing the oppressive social and economic relationships that have been central to the US throughout its history, the roots of policing in the United States are closely linked the capture of escaped slaves, and the enforcement of Black Codes. Similarly, police forces have been used to keep new immigrants “in line” and to prevent the poor and working classes from making demands. As social conditions change, how policing is used to target poor people, people of color, immigrants, and others who do not conform on the street or in their homes also shifts. The choices policing requires about which people to target, what to target them for, and when to arrest and book them play a major role in who ultimately gets imprisoned.





The Bills:

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