Seattle U law students target anti-homeless laws

March 06, 2015

HRAP practicum studentsIn an effort to protect the rights of homeless people, a group of Seattle University School of Law students are creating a comprehensive analysis of nuisance laws and other municipal measures that effectively make it a crime to be homeless.

The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project is housed in the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and led by Associate Professor of Lawyering Skills Sara Rankin. The goal is to provide important legal guidance for both state and national debates about the rights of homeless adults and children and to serve the community by partnering with other organizations working to end homelessness.

The program consists of a practicum class, in which eight second- and third-year students are preparing four comprehensive policy briefs for release to the public in May. Rankin said their analysis is expected to be the most comprehensive in the country.

Thirty-eight first-year students are also participating in HRAP by researching what's known as the "necessity defense" against anti-homelessness laws. Other Seattle U law students can also participate in HRAP as paid research assistants, as program fellows, or as volunteers in various community outreach efforts. 

"The dream is to create a database of homelessness resources," Rankin said. "These are not scholarly resources; this is meant as advocacy. These policy briefs that the students are creating are meant to be used to overturn or prevent the enactment of anti-homeless laws."

Seattle U has partnered on the project with law schools such as the University of California Berkeley in an innovative cross-institutional collaboration.

In recent years, more and more cities have passed laws that unfairly target homeless people, Rankin said. Examples include bans on camping in public, begging, loitering, sitting or lying down in certain places, and sleeping in vehicles.

The Seattle suburb of Burien, as an example, passed a law banning people with offensive body odor from certain public places. In response to public outcry, the city in January removed the language about body odor but kept in place other controversial provisions.

Rankin, who teaches Legal Writing, said her passion for working on behalf of the homeless stems from her pro bono work representing immigrants and refugees.

"I realized that it's all about poverty, and homelessness is visible poverty," she said.

"Our least understood form of prejudice is prejudice against homeless people," Rankin said. "Of course it is not socially acceptable to be racist or sexist, but often it seems completely acceptable for society to reject homeless people, to react to them with disgust." The increasingly popular laws that criminalize homelessness, Rankin contends, are codifications of societal disdain for visible poverty.

Moreover, homelessness can be understood as a manifestation of other forms of prejudice, including institutional racism, she said. For example, people of color and LGBTQ individuals are disproportionately represented in homeless populations. When her students compared the wording of many cities' current criminalization laws, they found remarkable similarities to historical laws that have been repealed, such as Jim Crow laws targeting African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era in the South.

Already, the project is making an impact. After the students presented their early work at a statewide conference hosted by Seattle University in September, two Burien city councilmembers who attended the conference spoke up in support of repealing that city's controversial nuisance law. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington also served the city of Burien with a cease and desist order regarding the ordinance.

HRAP frequently receives requests from outside organizations for the students to present the results of their analyses. They will also present their work at a conference on poverty law at Seattle U next February.