House Bill 1591 seeks to decriminalize homelessness

  • Tuesday, February 19, 2019 2:08pm
  • News

By Madeline Coats

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — A group of 11 Democratic lawmakers aims to address the rights of homeless people and their ability to survive in public.

State Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-Seatac, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 1591. The representative said she seeks to create a more-permanent solution to the homeless crisis instead of quick-fix laws.

HB 1591 would allow homeless people to survive in vehicles or public spaces without fear of obstruction. The bill would also permit the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in one’s personal property.

“Chronically homeless people are frequently burdened with civil infractions and criminal charges related to homelessness,” said Gregerson at a public hearing Tuesday.

The legislation prohibits a homeless person from being subject to civil or criminal penalties by law enforcement for having no reasonable alternative other than living in a public space.

Existing local shelters are inadequate in number or are functionally inaccessible, the bill says.

The measure intends to codify the rights of people experiencing homelessness, prohibit discrimination based on housing status and create a civil cause of action.

“Research proves that it is far more expensive to criminalize homelessness than it is to pursue non-punitive alternatives, such as low-barrier shelters, permanent supportive housing, and mental health and substance abuse treatment,” Gregerson said.

“We are in a homelessness crisis, but we are not alone,” Gregerson said, noting that California, Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut are enacting similar legislation.

In a related lawsuit of Martin v. City of Boise, it was decided that sitting, lying and sleeping are unavoidable consequences of being human.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that cities may not impose criminal sanctions against the homeless for sleeping outdoors on public property if no alternative shelter is available.

Olympia City Councilwoman Renata Rollins testified in support of HB 1591. The current solution to the homeless crisis is dependent on a failed policy to punish people’s basic livelihood with civil and criminal penalties, she said. Punitive factors are expensive and ineffective, she added.

“Fining people of meager means, slapping them with a criminal record and confiscating their humble belongings all contribute to lengthening the amount of time it takes a person to escape homelessness,” Rollins said.

She told the story of a quiet, homeless encampment in a greenbelt outside of downtown Olympia called Nickerson. Determined residents of the camp organized, cleaned and maintained the property with the help of neighbors and advocates, she said.

“Nickerson is an example of 21st century-based solutions at no additional cost to taxpayers,” Rollins said.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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