As the affordability crisis in the Puget Sound region pushes more of our neighbors on the street, law makers and advocates continue to search for humane and cost effective ways to end unsheltered homelessness. House Bill 1591, the ‘Homelessness Bill of Rights’ works towards this goal, through protecting the basic constitutional rights of individuals with no alternative besides sleeping in public.
The text of the bill is straightforward — cities within Washington should stop criminalizing homelessness, allowing them to redirect funds spent on enforcement and incarceration towards investments in evidence-based practices for ending homelessness, such as supportive housing. This approach is based on multiple studies showing that the criminalization of homelessness is counterproductive, as well precedents from around the country and the world. Although so called ‘quality of life’ laws aimed at clearing our streets and plazas of public displays of poverty have recently grown in popularity, they are frequently challenged in court and often struck down as unconstitutional. HB 1591 thus builds upon current judicial decisions and helps protect Washington municipalities from potential lawsuits.
Despite these benefits, the bill has faced pushback. Reiterating the civil rights of those experiencing homelessness requires us to confront deeply seated social stigmas, and ask hard questions about what has forced hundreds of thousands of individuals to live in third world conditions in a region with one of the nation’s premier economic engines. This stirs fears in some that protecting those forced to live in public view could lead to safety and health concerns in these spaces. HB 1591 did not pass out of committee before the cutoff for legislation this session, and the coalition which authored the legislation is now examining how to incorporate thoughtful community outreach and best practices into the next draft.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mia Gregerson (SeaTac-D), has seen the impact of the region’s affordability crisis for longer than most. As a native of SeaTac, she saw the impact of rising rents and stagnant wages in her largely working class district before more affluent neighborhoods to the north began to feel the pressures of displacement. When King County declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015 she was already familiar with the human toll. To address the crisis, Rep. Gregerson reached out to a diverse set of affordable housing and homelessness experts to ask what policies they felt would be most effective. Sara Rankin, a law professor and director of the Homelessness Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University advocated for a “Homelessness Bill of Rights.”