Indianapolis' Homeless Bill of Rights is Nice, But This is Why it Falls Short

March 5th 2015

Alicia Lutes

On Monday, Indianapolis' City-County Council voted 16 - 13 to approve a Homeless Bill of Rights as a way to ensure dignity and respect for the homeless. And while it's a great first step, it could go a heck of a lot further to help these folks get back on their feet.

The bill does have its merits. Based on a similarly styled law in Rhode Island, Indianapolis' Homeless Bill of Rights hopes to eradicate discrimination "against those who lack a permanent address," enacting protections that would guarantee them fair treatment, the right to privacy, access to medical care in emergencies, and the ability to vote (amongst other things).

Here's the Bill of Rights as it currently stands:

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.

But while it is vitally important to make these equal rights law, it's not nearly as proactive as it could be. According to the Indianapolis Star, "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."

Which is a shame because these are arguably the two most vital support mechanisms to help homeless individuals advance themselves with dignity. Other cities, such as New Orleans and San Francisco, have begun housing certain segments of their homeless population — namely homeless veterans — for free to not only keep them safe, but also provide them the mental solace that having stability and safety (and a roof over one's head) provides. Experts say that providing housing — without preconditions — is the most effective way to help homeless people dealing with addiction, for instance. 

Perhaps the most logical instance of compassionate and dignified care of the homeless is happening in Salt Lake City, where people are given a place to live — free of charge and regardless of their mental health or addiction status — in order to add stability and dignity to their lives. And guess what? It's working out really well for them so far:

Lloyd Pendleton, the director of Utah Homeless Task Force, also previously explained in a video that each homeless person costs the city "about $20,000 per person, per year" due to emergency services use. "[S]o when we realized we were incurring those costs anyway, [it became evident] there's a much more humane and economic way in order to meet their needs." So not only is compassion in homelessness care a ethically nice thing to do, it also just makes financial sense. The ripple effect on a program like this is undeniably huge and life-changing for these people. 

As these cities have shown, practical, tangible reforms can have success addressing the root causes of homelessness.