By Brian Eason
The City-County Council on Monday voted largely along party lines to create a "Homeless Bill of Rights," making Indianapolis one of the first cities in the country to do so.
The ordinance, modeled after similar laws in Rhode Island and Illinois, establishes specific protections for the homeless, a vulnerable population that advocates say face pervasive discrimination in their daily lives.
Among the protections: the right to "move freely in public spaces," such as sidewalks and public buildings; the right to equal treatment by city agencies; the right to emergency medical care; and the right to a "reasonable expectation of privacy" for their personal property, just as someone would have inside a home.
Notably, it would also make it more difficult to displace homeless people from public property.
The council in December voted to send the proposal back to committee for additional vetting after it became clear that the proposal lacked the support needed for passage. The biggest issue: Several council members said it tried to tackle too much at once, with too little thought given to the potential consequences.
On Monday, the council passed a stripped-down version that addressed some concerns but did little to sway Republicans in its favor. It passed 16-13, with Republican Councilman Jeff Miller voting with the Democratic majority for passage.
The new ordinance doesn't include any funding for a homeless engagement center, which the sponsor, Democratic Councilman LeRoy Robinson, has broken out into a separate proposal. And a provision protecting the homeless from employment discrimination was removed in committee because it lacked support.
But controversial provisions remained.
One section requires the city to give a homeless person 15 days notice before displacing him or her from a camp.
Opponents worry this will be too onerous in the event of a public health crisis, such as the Davidson Street camp, which was dismantled in 2013 because of complaints about garbage and human waste. The council approved an amendment that allows police to circumvent the new procedures in case of emergencies.
But others still fear it could be a magnet for lawsuits.
Republican Councilman Robert Lutz questioned the way the ordinance defines "camp" and "public space." Under the most literal interpretation, he said, it could mean as few as two people with tents at a park or on a sidewalk.
"It's well intended, but the proposal in my view has such flaws that I just don't think it's practical to enforce," Lutz said. "I don't want to be seen as a heartless person, but we have to be concerned with the realities of this."
The city also would have to store displaced people's belongings for 60 days and connect them with nonprofits that would provide them with transitional housing and "wrap-around services," such as medical care and employment assistance.
Robinson said such services are vital -- and less costly than arresting people for minor offenses to get them off the streets.
"It is much more cost-effective to provide support services and assistance to those experiencing homelessness in our city, than to arrest them," Robinson wrote in an email to The Star. "Sadly, our city had chosen the latter."
Elsewhere, similar bills of rights have drawn mixed reviews. The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless reports that it has been difficult to get agencies to follow the new rules since they were passed in 2012, noting that despite their best efforts, "discrimination and harassment continue."
Still, the coalition says it has given legal groups another valuable tool to defend the homeless. And national advocacy groups, including the National Coalition for the Homeless, consider a bill of rights to be a critical piece in broader efforts to assist those who lack housing.
For Indianapolis, the proposal represents a 180-degree shift from past debates on the issues of homelessness and public nuisances -- and it's possible it will be vetoed by Republican Mayor Greg Ballard. As recently as last year, his administration was pushing for new restrictions on the use of public spaces in a bid to put an end to aggressive panhandling Downtown.
The City-County Council has proposed establishing a "Homeless Bill of Rights" that would outlaw discrimination against those who lack a permanent address. Modeled after a Rhode Island law, it would enact the following protections:
1. The right to move freely in public spaces, including sidewalks, parks, buses and buildings.
2. The right to equal treatment by city agencies.
3. The right to emergency medical care.
4. The right to vote, register to vote and receive documentation needed for a photo ID.
5. The right to protection from disclosure of private records, as well as the right to confidentiality already protected by federal law.
6. The right to the same "reasonable expectation of privacy" for their personal property as someone with a permanent residence has.
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