Oct 7, 2021 - News

D.C. Council makes bid for homeless anti-discrimination protections

A homeless tent in D.C.

Photo: Yasin Ozturk for Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There's a new push to give more rights to unhoused people in D.C.

Driving the news: Lawyers, housing advocates, and people experiencing homelessness are getting behind another D.C Council bill that would formally make homelessness a protected class.

Why it matters: The legislative effort comes as D.C. is experiencing a surge in unsheltered people where just this week efforts to clear a tent encampment were paused after a bulldozer injured an unhoused resident in a tent.

  • Yesterday's council meeting was the third time a bill to make homelessness a protected class has been introduced. It stalled out in both the 2017-2018 session and again in the 2019-2020 session, Street Sense Media reported.
  • The bill would also provide training to law enforcement on the impact of enforcement on people experiencing homelessness and would prohibit employment discrimination against contractors.

Between the lines: The bill will address a distinct form of discrimination, Kate Coventry, senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, testified Wednesday.

  • "For example, if a woman is denied service at a restaurant because she appears homeless, not because of her gender," she said.

The bill also comes at a time when a new tax increase will fund additional vouchers for adults experiencing homelessness in D.C. and as the city enters the second phase of its plan to end homelessness.

  • It is illegal in D.C. to refuse a tenant housing because they are using a voucher, but Lynn Amano, a community and advocacy organizer at Friendship Place which provides housing services, testified Wednesday that "property owners have made blanket discriminatory statements like, ‘we don't take vouchers,' when clients are seeking housing."
  • Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam's Kitchen, tells Axios D.C. that making homelessness a protected class can crack down on these practices and improve access to housing.

By the numbers: Nearly 93% of people experiencing homelessness in D.C. say they've felt discriminated against because of their homelessness, a National Coalition for the Homeless survey found in 2014.

  • More than 70% reported discrimination by a private business and 67% reported discrimination by law enforcement.
  • Nearly 50% reported discrimination by medical providers and 44% reported discrimination by service providers.

What they’re saying: Reginald Black, a member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness and paper vendor for Street Sense Media, testified about his own experiences with discrimination from 2016.

  • While wearing a blue Street Sense Media vendor vest, he went inside a restaurant and says he was told by a manager he only had 30 minutes to eat.
  • “I could not prove that homelessness was actually the thing fueling this negative interaction," Black said. But under this legislation, Black added, such discrimination could be coded and data could be collected to thoroughly investigate discrimination claims.

Amano also testified that clients of Friendship Place's hiring program have faced discrimination from potential employers, including "claims of people lacking cultural fit or assumptions about the individual's capabilities to perform on the job, both before and after employment."

  • "Until all these D.C. residents can obtain actual suitable housing, the city can at least protect them from undue discrimination being piled up on top of all of the already challenging situations they face," Amano said.

What's next: It's not clear where the bill will go from here, but council member Brianne Nadeau, who co-introduced the bill, tells Axios that the work D.C. is doing, through a tax increase, to give more people housing vouchers is just as important.

  • "It's hard for people once they have the voucher to go out in the market and find housing. But the more that we work with providers who own a number of different properties and are open to accepting vouchers … the faster we can help people," she says.
A homeless crisis reporting blitz logo
This article is part of our 2021 contribution to the D.C. Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.

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