Traverse City Homeless 'Bill of Rights' Could Turn Public Facilities into Impromptu Shelters

Document includes restricting media from labeling people 'homeless'

Traverse City's governing body recently passed a resolution that among other things could make it harder for libraries and other public facilities to enforce rules banning vagrants from using their facility as a place to hang out. “A Resolution Recognizing the Rights of Homeless Persons," as the document is titled, is the product of an arm of city government called the Human Rights Commission.

Commission member Patricia Nugent said, “We’re trying to be proactive. The population has grown in the last few years and we don’t want to see bad things start to happen.”

By “bad things,” Nugent means laws passed in cities around the country restricting homeless people from using public places as a shelter rather than for their intended use. It remains unclear whether the resolution could be used to undermine rules adopted by libraries and other public facilities that want to restrict vagrants they believe dissuade regular patrons from visiting.

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Jason Gillman, president of the Traverse Area District Library board of trustees, has a different take on such policies. He said: “When a person walks into our library, there isn't a label on them that says 'homeless.' To be good stewards of public resources libraries adopt rules to protect all patrons. Empowering activists to challenge these commonsense rules based on special 'rights' granted to a particular population would not be a good idea."

Gillman also expressed concern for the rights of taxpayers who want to use the library for its intended purpose, or parents who want to bring their kids without being confronted by a spectacle.

For example, MLive has reported on a problem with heroin use at the downtown Ann Arbor public library. The library had four heroin overdoses from 2011 to 2014 and at least one drug deal was made there during that span.

The Traverse City resolution states that the homeless should be able to “move freely in public places in the same manner as other persons without harassment or intimidation,” and have equal opportunity to employment, to vote, have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” and be able to “access basic requirements necessary for sustaining life, including shelter, sanitation, medical care, clothing and food.”

One provision of the resolution also raises concerns related to the First Amendment, since it appears to tell journalists what they can and cannot report. Specifically, it creates an individual “right” to “have economic status not reported in media reports." The ACLU of Michigan chose to decline to comment on the resolution.

It may be premature to focus too much on specific concerns, however, since even the resolution’s authors admit it probably has few teeth. Nugent said, “We use this document as a publicity document to create more awareness around the city that we have a homeless population and they do have rights and the commission will do some activities that will continue to keep public awareness and public education.”

But she also hinted that if the resolution does not bring about the commission's goal of making the public show more respect to homeless individuals, then the city may have to create something with more regulatory power, like an anti-discrimination ordinance that authorizes fines and lawsuits. Nugent believes this is the only resolution of its kind in Michigan.