DENVER (AP) – Homeless people in Colorado told state lawmakers Wednesday of being kicked by police, blocked from sleeping and thrown in jail for sitting in parks as lawmakers started work on a bill giving homeless people the right to seek civil remedies if they’re harassed by authorities while resting in public.
Lawmakers also heard powerful testimony from one of their own – a former House member who lost his business and had to live in his car for a time after leaving office in 1989.
“They are human beings. They have human rights,” said former Rep. Robert Bowen, a Democrat who is now back on his feet.
The Democratic-sponsored proposal would outline rights that homeless people have in public, including the right to move freely without discrimination. The bill also says the homeless have a right to rest in public spaces, eat and accept food, and maintain privacy over their belongings.
If any of those rights are violated, the proposal says homeless people can seek civil relief in the courts. The measure, dubbed the “Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights,” was inspired by homeless people who suggested such a law to Rep. Joe Salazar, the Thornton Democrat sponsoring it.
“That, at that moment, triggered a memory of my grandfather,” Salazar said, recalling when he was approached to introduce the bill. “My grandfather was a minister. I used to drive around with him, and he would help out people who are homeless, and he would help people who are on the verge of homelessness. And my grandfather always told me that you have to be kind to your fellow human beings because you never know when one of them might be an angel.”
A House committee started work on the bill Wednesday. A vote on the measure was delayed to an undetermined date. But the testimony was powerful.
“I’ve been kicked away, flashlight in your face, officers kicking you and telling you to move along, ticket in hand,” said Nicole Siseneros, a homeless woman from Boulder County who said she has been ticketed 15 times for loitering or camping violations in Denver.
California and Oregon are considering similar legislation, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois have enacted laws outlining rights for the homeless. The Duluth City Council in Minnesota passed a resolution last year urging the city to pass a homeless bill of rights, the group said.
Opponents to the Colorado bill say it could unleash a torrent of lawsuits.
In an email, the Colorado Civil Justice League, a group that advocates against what it deems unreasonable lawsuits, called the proposal “little more than a license to sue on behalf of homeless people.”
Salazar dismissed that argument as a scare tactic.
“I find those arguments to be just absolute bogus, garbage,” he said. “And I use it very strongly, those words, because on anything that allows people to get some recourse for a violation of their rights, we always hear people say that.”
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.
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