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Homeless Rights Advocacy Project identifies laws that unfairly target the visibly poor

May 09, 2016

Seattle University School of Law's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project has released six new reports that continue the group's influential, groundbreaking research into laws that unfairly target the visibly poor.

The new reports examine the impacts of increasingly popular laws and policies that criminalize homelessness, such as prohibitions on living in vehicles, sweeps of tent encampments, pet ownership standards, and barriers to access at emergency shelters.

Sara Rankin"Our research in 2015 started an important conversation, both locally and nationally, about treating people with compassion and fairness under the law," said Professor Sara Rankin, HRAP's faculty director. "These new reports take that conversation to the next level."

HRAP students conducted extensive legal research and analysis to complete the briefs, conducting interviews with a wide range of experts (including people experiencing homelessness); surveying municipal, state, and federal laws; and reviewing legal standards set by previous court decisions.

"We found that common homelessness myths are refuted by statistics, experience, case law, and common sense," said Justin Olson, a third-year law student. "These are the issues that people experiencing homelessness struggle with every day."

"The reaction by many cities to visible poverty has been to try to make it invisible using methods like homeless encampment sweeps," said Samir Junejo, also a third-year law student. "However, it's clear that we cannot sweep the problem of homelessness under a rug and hope it goes away."

Prejudice and unconstitutional discrimination against the visibly poor continues, Professor Rankin said. The new reports identify specific common problems and offer effective, legally sound alternatives.

Key findings of the 2016 reports:

  • Nearly one-third of Washington cities surveyed ban people from living in their vehicles, even temporarily. Seattle has the highest number of ordinances against vehicle residency (20). Ordinances in Tacoma, Aberdeen, and Longview likely violate the U.S. Constitution. (Full report)
  • Business improvement districts can function as quasi-governmental agencies, regulating public space in ways that can unfairly target the visibly poor. The Metropolitan Improvement District in Seattle, for example, conducted 22,843 trespass and wake-up visits from 2014-15, a rate of roughly 62 interactions per day. (Full report)
  • The assumption that people experiencing homelessness can simply go to an emergency shelter is deeply flawed. Barriers to shelter access include lack of capacity, lack of accommodations for families, rules against unaccompanied youth, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, and sobriety requirements. (Full report)
  • "Sweeps" of homeless encampments are ineffective, traumatizing to residents, and potentially unconstitutional. (Full report)
  • Pets contribute to the emotional well-being of people experiencing homelessness, but pet owners face constant attention, harassment, and scrutiny by both passersby and law enforcement officers. Licensing requirements, anti-tethering laws, and standards of care laws unfairly target the visibly poor. (Full report)
  • Immigrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable to homelessness. Factors include economic challenges, language barriers, education barriers, housing instability, and legal status. (Full report)

The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law engages students in effective legal and policy research, analysis, and advocacy work to advance the rights of homeless adults, youth, and children. The 2015 reports are available online.

Claudine Benmar
Assistant Director, Communications & Public Relations
benmarc@seattleu.edu, 206-398-4175

Professor Sara Rankin
Director, Homeless Rights Advocacy Project
rankins@seattleu.edu, 206-398-4393