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You Don’t Have a Home to Go to but You Can Stay Here: A Bill of Rights for Unhoused Minnesotans

By Daniel P. Suitor. Full Text.

Unhoused people are constantly and consistently mistreated by our society. Cities criminalize basic, life-sustaining activities of people experiencing homelessness, such as sitting down in public or sleeping in parks. Law enforcement bodies are quick to harass them, and residents are happy to look the other way in the name of “property values” and “neighborhood character.” A perfect example of this application of excessive municipal force against vulnerable people is the clearing of the Powderhorn Park encampment. The Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board used a bulldozer to destroy the tents and precious few belongings of unhoused people living in a public park, while the Minneapolis Police Department pepper-sprayed protestors who gathered to support the unhoused.

Unhoused people do not have adequate access to civil counsel nor effective causes of action to bring lawsuits enforcing their fundamental civil, constitutional, and human rights. It is one thing to possess rights and another thing altogether to enjoy those rights. When unhoused people can be chased from place to place—kicked out of neighborhoods and parks and scoured from almost every public space—despite cities offering no alternative, how can we say that they enjoy equal treatment under the law? How can we say they enjoy the full franchise vested in them by our Constitution?

Enter the Unhoused Bill of Rights (UBR). This form of law, enacted in three states, one territory, and a handful of cities, seeks to reinforce the fundamental rights of the unhoused and provide better access to litigation vindicating these rights. However, existing UBR have not proven effective at accomplishing those goals and the laws have fallen out of favor. No statewide UBR has been passed since 2013. This Note seeks to inject some life into that moribund model of law. It covers background information on homelessness, then analyzes the corpus of constitutional law that has developed around the rights of the unhoused. The Note then examines existing and proposed UBR as well as other laws and policies promoting the rights of the unhoused. This Note concludes by weighing their strengths and weaknesses to propose a Bill of Rights for Unhoused Minnesotans.

This Note proposes the most progressive and powerful UBR set forth anywhere to date. No UBR has proposed all of these measures, and many of them have never been proposed at all. Its provisions and policies work to codify fundamental rights, provide a cause of action against retaliation for exercising said rights, prevent discrimination against unhoused people, close loopholes in existing laws that fail unhoused people, enact social programs which would be greatly beneficial to unhoused people, abrogate a vast number of laws criminalizing homelessness, and provide a powerful set of remedies, including statutory damages per violation and treble damages for certain aggravated misconduct. This Note contains the full text of a draft statute. It also provides an advocacy roadmap for legislators and activists seeking to enact such a law. If enacted, the proposed law would effectively protect the fundamental rights of unhoused people and reduce homelessness in Minnesota.