A bill in the Washington Legislature would prohibit cities and counties from criminalizing homelessness.
HB 1591, sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-Seatac, also would prohibit discrimination based on housing status and ensure legal assistance for those who believe their civil rights were violated in connection to housing.
The bill seeks to codify a ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that said cities are prohibited under the Eighth Amendment from imposing criminal sanctions on the homeless for sleeping outdoors when no other options exist for them. The court said that sleeping, sitting and lying down are unavoidable consequences of being human and, as such, punishment and fines for doing so are unconstitutional.
Gregerson said Tuesday the homelessness crisis is the result of thousands of policies that have been adopted over several decades by lawmakers and public employees.
“We are not going to reverse these horrific effects overnight or in one bill, but what we can do is commit to identifying root causes of this crisis,” she said. “What we can talk about today is putting a plan together so that no one is a throwaway person, and where no community is a throwaway community. We can no longer crunch enough numbers or legislate our way out of this. We must face the crisis head on.”
Gregerson said that the court ruling in Martin vs. City of Boise provides the backdrop for her bill.
The plaintiffs in the case were a group of people experiencing homelessness in Boise. They alleged that the city of Boise violated their Eighth Amendment rights by outlawing sleeping and camping in public when there were no other viable options for shelter. The court held that the city could no longer criminalize sleeping outdoors on the false pretense that homeless people had a choice in the matter.
The court also clarified that a reasonable, alternative shelter must be functionally accessible to those who need it. Shelters with barriers such as religious requirements as a condition to access are not reasonable alternatives, according to the ruling.
Gregerson’s bill received support from those who said it’s time for the Legislature to step in.
Renata Rollins is a member of the City Council in Olympia, where homelessness is a pressing issue. Ticketing people for sleeping on sidewalks and the like doesn’t solve the underlying problems, Rollins said.
“The punitive ‘whack-a-mole’ approach is not only ineffective, it’s actually counterproductive,” said Rollins. “Fining people of meager means, slapping them with a criminal record, and confiscating their humble belongings all contribute to the amount of time it takes for someone to escape homelessness. It’s not good for anyone.”
Some have concerns with the bill.
“The bill in its current form severely limits state agencies in their ability to have influence over the time, place and manner of use of the space that’s in their care,” said Jim Baumgart, senior policy adviser on human services for Gov. Jay Inslee. “This results in concerns over public health, public safety, worker safety and facilities management.”
There were other concerns.
Mike Hoover works for the Washington State Association of Counties.
Hoover said the definition of harassment in the bill is so broad it might make people hesitant to reach out to help those experiencing homelessness because their help could be perceived as harassment.
“This may not be the most caring and noble response, but it’s a very human response if you think you’re going to get in trouble. You just don’t do it,” said Hoover.
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma and chair of the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, said she appreciated the testimony from opposing parties but thinks it is time for the Legislature to pursue more options to target homelessness.
“I’m happy to see language that you all support, and do consider that,” Jinkins said. “But this is actually a true problem across the state of Washington that we just can’t sit in the corner and say no. We have to figure out ways to say yes.”
HB 1591 will be scheduled for an executive session under the House Civil Rights and Judiciary committee at a later date.