Right To Rest: A Revitalized Effort to Help Those Experiencing Homelessness

Jordan Bissell

Over two years ago, the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights was proposed and unanimously voted on by the Duluth City Council. They supported in agreement to have the Human Rights Commission draft the language for the ordinance. Unfortunately, this was never achieved. Though the Human Rights Commission attempted, the Bill of Rights was never officially returned to the City Council due to various political road blocks. Currently, a new revitalization of the movement is back in swing. Backed by local organizations like CHUM, Loaves & Fishes, and many others, a grassroots organizing effort of citizens is shaping a new attempt towards the act which will affect the lives of the area’s homeless.

So what is a Homeless Person's Bill of Rights? To those that have never experienced homelessness, it may be something a lot of Duluthians haven't had to reflect on much. However, most won't deny homelessness is a real issue in our community. Though any human rights advocate will probably express that the end goal would be to eliminate homelessness, in the mean time, the goal is to help citizens experiencing homelessness to survive and meet their basic needs. “Our community needs to confront the sad reality that we are not ending homelessness fast enough for a homeless person’s bill of rights to be null-and-void. This is an essential human rights policy that our City Council needs to pass and enforce. We have neighbors already experiencing the trauma of homelessness and we need to make sure they do not experience the trauma of discrimination in their own community on top this,” said CHUM employee, Courtney Cochran.

The current planning group hoping to pass a city ordinance for the Bill of Rights consists of various individuals from the community, some from supporting organizations, some local grassroots organizers and activists, but also people who have personally experienced homelessness. They know first hand what it is like and what it means to be profiled and harassed as a criminal when they are very likely just trying to meet their basic needs. The Bill of Rights is intended to provide protection and dignity to those experiencing homelessness while they try to sleep, eat, access basic hygiene facilities, or even just exist in public spaces peacefully. Planning group and City Councilor Em Westerlund came up with a preliminary list of protections for the ordinance to include:

    1.    The right to use and move freely in public spaces, without discrimination or arbitrary time limits.
    2.    The right to rest in public spaces and protect oneself from elements in a non-obstructive manner.
    3.    The right to eat, share or accept food in public spaces.
    4.    The right to occupy a legally parked motor vehicle.
    5.    The right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces.
    6.    The right to equal treatment by city staff and agencies.
    7.    The right to protection from disclosure of personal information without consent.
    8.    The right to protection from discrimination in housing and employment.
    9.    The right to 24 hour access to basic hygiene facilities.
    10.    The right to choose whether or not to utilize emergency shelter.
    11.    The right to speak with an advocate or street outreach worker when questioned by police.

"There is always going to be people that sleep outside, that camp, that travel, it's a big part of the demographic. For peaceful, law abiding citizens who are experiencing homelessness, this Bill of Rights could really help," said Paco Mendoza, a 37 year old Duluth citizen who identifies as someone experiencing homelessness. We had the opportunity to talk with Mendoza at the recent planning meeting for the Bill of Rights and he offered insight about what seems to be a gravitational pull of those experiencing homelessness to our downtown sector. He went on to say, "The people who work at places like CHUM and the Damiano are really wonderful people, but the reality of the situation in Duluth is that if people want to access the resources they provide, they have to come to the urban quarter." The planning committee is for that very reason not only reaching out to non-profits and community groups, but also local businesses. Businesses, in our downtown area specifically, deal first hand with the issue and therefore play an important role in addressing homelessness in our city.

Westerlund, who is sponsoring the resolution, updated us about the legal process of turning the resolution into an ordinance or law, saying that, "Since the City Council unanimously voted in support in 2014, the resolution of intent has already been passed, it's just the ordinance language that needs to be written. So we are putting together the actual language for the rules and rights that would be protected under this ordinance." Once the language is agreed upon, the council will again vote on the matter to put it into affect. She continued to say, "as we're making up our policy proposal, there will continue to be discussion about the various elements of it, but it is to my understanding that the council continues to support the premise of homeless and transient individuals having protected rights to rest and be in public places without fear of repercussions or being harassed."

The Reader will continue to follow the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights as it progresses.