Landmark case to set precedent on Illinois’ Homeless Bill of Rights

A court case in Chicago will set a precedent on how effectively the state’s Homeless Bill of Rights Act will defend the rights of the homeless.

Three years after Illinois’ Homeless Bill of Rights Act passed, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless took Chicago to court over allegations that city employees mistreated Robert Henderson. This trial could either reaffirm the support laid out in the bill of rights or render the act essentially useless.

When the Homeless Bill of Rights was originally signed into law in 2013, it guaranteed that no person living on the streets, in a shelter, or in a temporary residence would have their rights, privileges, or access to public services “denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless.” These privileges were laid out in the bill to include access to public services, freedom from discrimination, and the right to a “reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property.”

In the ongoing case between a homeless man and the City of Chicago, Diane O’Connell, an attorney working with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, claims that Mr. Henderson’s rights were violated in a recent altercation with city employees.

“Recently we filed the first court case under the bill of rights act in March,” said O’Connell. “It was on behalf of this man named Robert Henderson, who had all of his property thrown in the garbage by city workers back in November.”

O’Connell continued, “he went to go panhandle for a few minutes and when he came back there was a city garbage crew that was throwing all of his stuff into their truck. They were not willing to help him recover his property and they were really rude to him. They said that he had to leave because there were complaints about homeless people.”

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless hopes to use this treatment of Henderson as proof that his rights as guaranteed to him in the Homeless Bill of Rights were refused.

“We’re alleging in state court that it violated his right to equal treatment by state and municipal agencies, his right to privacy and possession and his right to move around freely in public places,” explained O’Connell.

Despite this claim, the City of Chicago’s position is that the treatment of Mr. Henderson was not because of his homelessness and therefore would not be covered by the Homeless Bill of Rights.

“On September 1, the argument will be in motion. The city has filed a motion about our complaint stating that their actions did not violate their law because the law has to be strictly interpreted so that the only actions that would violate it would have to be based solely on homelessness,” O’Connell stated.

Despite the high stakes, Diane O’Connell is hopeful that this landmark case will be a step in the right direction.

“In litigation, any fight is a good fight,” She explained. “If you look at the American legal structure, every law student was taught that there was a time in US history, the late 60s, when lawyers were fighting to get more people to be protected by the equal protection clause. As time moves on we’re becoming more resistant to the idea of equity. Every step we’ve gained for gender equality or homeless equality has involved a long and hard struggle.”

Illinois is one of three US states that has enacted Homeless Bills of Rights alongside Connecticut and Illinois. The National Coalition for the Homeless continues to work with advocates from California, Oregon, Vermont, and Michigan on similar legislation.

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