Do Homeless People Have Rights?

Also published on The Huffington Post.

If you think the public debate about universal health care is loud and sometimes acrimonious, just think about what would happen if we ever start talking about whether homeless people have rights.

What rights would we be talking about?  I couldn’t say it better, so here it is from the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), the unanimous declaration from the thirteen original colonies:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,
that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

However, the Declaration of Independence does not contain a list of our rights. We know some of our rights because they are contained in:

(1) U.S. Constitution, particularly the first ten amendments referred to as the Bill of Rights.

(2) Congressional legislation, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA) 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.  and


(3) Court decisions through which the courts, ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, interpret the Constitution and identify rights, such as the right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).


The terms, “homeless person” or “homeless people” do not appear in the U.S. Constitution. So how to we know what rights, if any, homeless people have?


Today, some of the rights of chronically homeless people  are being determined through the courts.  For example, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU/SC) has filed lawsuits against the three Cities of Laguna Beach,  Santa Barbara  and Santa Monica   alleging that their ordinances against sleeping in public places and the enforcement of said ordinances violate the rights of chronically homeless residents who have no other place to sleep.


In each of these lawsuits, the ACLU/SC


• claims that while there is an insufficient number of homeless shelter beds in each of these cities, the police are intimidating, harassing and arresting their chronically homeless residents for the natural and involuntary act of sleeping in public when there is no way for them to comply with the law;


• seeks injunctive relief to prevent the Cities and their police forces from enforcing said ordinances against chronically homeless people; and


• requests a declaration from the court that the ordinances in question and the enforcement of said ordinances, violate chronically homeless people’s rights to equal protection under the law,  their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment,  their rights to due process of law,  their rights to be free of illegal searches and seizures,  and their rights to freedom from discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)


There are a few differences among the lawsuits.  The Laguna lawsuit  was brought on behalf of five named plaintiffs, while the Santa Barbara  and Santa Monica  lawsuits were brought on behalf of named plaintiffs and also as class actions.


Further, in the Santa Barbara lawsuit,  the ACLU/SC seeks to protect chronically homeless people’s rights from illegal takings of their private property without just compensation.  And unique to the Santa Monica lawsuit,  is the claim that the referenced ordinances and their enforcement violate the rights of chronically homeless to travel and move freely.


While the lawsuits against the Cities of Santa Barbara  and Santa Monica  are still pending, the City of Laguna lawsuit  was settled this June.  As part of the terms of this settlement, the City of Laguna agreed


(1) to repeal and did repeal those sections of the municipal code relating to camping and sleeping in public places within the City


(2) to expunge the records of arrests and convictions made pursuant to the City’s ordinance against sleeping in public and


(3) not to cite, arrest or harass people under State law simply for sleeping in public places in cases where there are no reasonable public health or safety concerns.


After the City of Santa Monica passed their ordinance against sleeping in all public places, I asked a high-ranking Santa Monica official a question.  I said, “Of course, homeless people cannot sleep on private property, that’s against the law of trespass.  However, now that the City of Santa Monica has passed a law against sleeping in all public places, where are homeless people to go?”


He answered, “Into the sea.”


If every city with an insufficient number of shelter beds were to pass an ordinance against sleeping in all public places, there would be no place for a homeless person to sleep.  This is the real danger facing homeless people.


The rights that the ACLU/SC is seeking to protect are the rights that belong to all of us — in this case, the rights of disabled people who are homeless to sleep in public places and to exist in these United States.