In the early 2000s, Mike Karl was a face among the countless homeless individuals living in Reutter Park in Lansing, struggling with alcoholism. Today, Karl is the inspiration for a bill that seeks to establish a Homeless Bill of Rights.
State Rep. Emily Dievendorf, D-Lansing, said the Homeless Bill of Rights would set a baseline for how homeless people are treated in Michigan, with a focus on addressing the social determinants of homelessness. It’s a comprehensive piece of legislation that tackles multiple aspects of homelessness, from better access to permanent addresses, voting rights and medical care to protection from discrimination and safeguarding personal belongings.
The bill, also known as HB 4919, includes the following protections:
The bill has already received two days of testimony in committee and has not yet been scheduled for a committee vote.
In Karl’s journey out of homelessness that lasted about 10 years, he had lost his permanent address and, with it, his ability to vote. Karl, now a former homeless individual who advocates for those still unhoused, said there are thousands like him who could be registered voters but aren’t because they lack a permanent address.
In Reutter Park, where Karl sought refuge, he met the pastor from a church in Kalamazoo. The pastor provided Karl with a temporary reprieve, housing him in a hotel while he accessed community resources.
“It was on my heart to pick up (the pastor’s) torch,” Karl said.
As someone who had been through the system, Karl understands the importance of obtaining essential documents such as homeless ID cards, housing vouchers and military discharge certificates from the Veterans Administration. However, he lost all of his important papers, including his birth certificate, during his time spent unhoused.
Dievendorf said one of the most significant challenges faced by homeless people is the lack of proper documentation. Without these essential papers, they miss out on crucial opportunities for housing and support. This lack of documentation, as Karl pointed out, contributes to an underreporting of homelessness and a backlog in shelters.
Karl shared a story of a woman who spent over a year in a shelter, unaware that she had a permanent supportive housing voucher, which is the highest level of support.
“I see it 10 times a day, we’re paying for someone to stay in a hotel for 10 months when we could have taken that money and made them a homeowner,” Karl said. “And then we’ve created a way out for people instead of just setting people up in a hotel with no representation, no documentation and no information.”
The absence of a legal network to help navigate these situations is a significant contributor to the overcrowding in homeless shelters, Karl said. Shelters often struggle to document everyone effectively, leading to missed opportunities for those in need.
Laura Grimwood of the City Rescue Mission in Lansing said the number of nights of shelter and meals provided in the past nine months have surpassed the numbers for all of 2019 already. The City Rescue Mission is operating beyond capacity before winter temperatures have started. The mission has identified two buildings in the 400 block of West Kalamazoo Street near downtown Lansing that it is hoping to buy and convert into additional shelter space.
“The City Rescue Mission is providing a safe haven to more individuals than ever in its 112-year history. We are grateful that this bill is bringing attention not only to the chronically homeless, but also to much of the homeless population: those who are staying at a shelter and those who may be finding temporary shelter with a friend or acquaintance,” Grimwood said in a statement.
Dievendorf said her hope is that this legislation will lead to a better understanding of the obstacles these individuals face and foster long-term, sustainable solutions for homeless community members.
If the Homeless Bill of Rights becomes law, homeless people will be able to take violators to court when their belongings are destroyed or thrown away. The perpetrators could be prosecuted for destruction of property, just like for anyone else. This change would mark a significant step toward recognizing the equal rights of the homeless population, Dievendorf said, adding that this bill would achieve equal, not equitable, access to resources and services.
In Lansing, Mayor Andy Schor expressed his support for the measure’s “intention.”
“People should not be treated differently because they are homeless,” he said by email. “Lansing allows those of need to move freely through public spaces including, but not limited to, public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation, and public buildings in the same manner as any other individual and without discrimination on the basis of the individual’s housing status.
“The City of Lansing has ordinances requiring the treatment of all residents equally regardless of housing status. Our City Clerk is an elections leader and ensures voting without discrimination. Our schools ensure that youth are educated regardless of housing status,” Schor added.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses expressed concerns about the employment discrimination provision that is meant to protect homeless people who are turned down for jobs because they lack a permanent address. The federation said it could put small business owners in a “very difficult position” because of state and federal requirements that employees have addresses.
“While the bill is well intentioned, we are concerned that may leave small business owners with unintended consequences,” said Amanda Fisher, NFIB’s Michigan director, in a statement, referring to the threat of lawsuits.
The NFIB was the only organization to testify or write in opposition.
Karl said that when he was unhoused, his personal belongings were stolen, including some photographs of his parents and son.
“I went through heaven and hell to find” the photos, Karl said. “I found these pictures in the dirt. They’re still waterlogged, but I keep them on the dashboard of my truck. I have them to this day as a reminder. They stay in the truck with me so I never forget that struggle.”
Dievendorf recalled a story of one of her constituents who qualified for housing based on his Social Security income, but because he didn’t have a credit history or a pay stub, he was turned away.
“But he had the money,” Dievendorf said. “Consistency is shown in several different ways. If you aren’t able to pay bills, you’re still consistent by showing up every day at the shelter in time to get in line for the night. As I’m talking to my friend, we’ll get to a point in our conversations where he’ll point at his watch to signal he has to get in line.”
Dievendorf said she recognizes that obtaining housing is biased towards those who are already housed, with requirements such as a good credit history and proof of payment. Dievendorf said housed individuals enjoy stability daily, a luxury that is often unimaginable for the unhoused population.
Karl said should the bill pass, he wants to establish a legal network where attorneys would offer pro bono services to help homeless people navigate the complex legal landscape they often find themselves in.
Dievendorf said in the face of the opioid epidemic, advocates for the unhoused should focus on building relationships within encampments, learning about the people’s needs, and providing the necessary support and resources to address compounding issues like substance abuse.
“The significant presence of drug paraphernalia at encampments tells us that we truly can only get to the root causes of houselessness if we bring resources that will help people target the sources of their instability,” Dievendorf said.
Karl said while he was homeless, this bill would have made him feel like somebody was standing up for him.
“You mean, there’s a bill that’s named the Homeless Bill of Rights? I have a Bill of Rights?” Karl said.
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