The Law Project has increased its focus on defining and protecting the civil rights of people who live on the street. This work centers on litigation and advocacy for housing as an alternative to criminalization. The Law Project joined “Housing Not Handcuffs,” a new national campaign that aims to assist people in securing permanent housing while highlighting the cost, ineffectiveness, and harm caused by over-policing.

The Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act

HBOR bill signing ceremony, August 2013 (Photo by Judy Fidkowski)

In 2013, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless was instrumental in passing the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act (HBOR). Illinois became the second state in the nation to guarantee particular civil liberties to those experiencing homelessness. The Bill of Rights includes among other protections a right to be free from discrimination by state and municipal agencies. It also protects the right to privacy in one’s possessions to the same extent as in a private residence. Law Project attorneys have worked to implement the act, educating those who are impacted through advocacy, outreach, and litigation.

The bill was signed into law in the CCH office by then-Gov. Pat Quinn.

Bryant v. City of Chicago     

The same year that HBOR was signed into law, CCH attorneys and legal interns began intensive outreach around “street sweeps” in Chicago – a regular practice where city workers would, without notice, confiscate and throw out the property of homeless people. Sweeps regularly occurred on Lower Wacker Drive and under the Wilson viaduct in the Uptown neighborhood, often early in the morning. Police and sanitation workers used the sweeps and threat of arrest as a method of dispersing and intimidating people living on the street.

Clients and pro bono partners with Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes (left)
Clients and pro bono partners with Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes (left) (Photo by Shruti Sharma)

CCH attorneys and pro bono partners drafted a complaint around these practices, asserting violations of HBOR as well as other state and federal laws. Our negotiations with the city of Chicago resulted in a settlement and new street cleaning policy enacted in January 2015 that includes heightened protections for homeless property.

The Law Project continues to monitor how the city implements this policy while educating the homeless community about its protections. In 2015, the Law Project monitored approximately 20 street cleanings and interviewed 80 people who live on the street. This outreach and observation raised significant concerns, shared with city officials, about city compliance with its own policy.

Homeless Court

In 2015, the Law Project – in conjunction with the American Bar Association’s Commission on Homelessness & Poverty – began convening a work group to explore implementing a specialty court for people experiencing homelessness in Chicago. This group is working on a model that would provide successful alternatives to prosecution. A broad array of stakeholders are involved, including Cook County’s chief judge, public defender, state’s attorney, and jail offices, service providers, and legal aid attorneys. The group plans to solidify a model to begin a specialty court that would reduce incarceration, avoid criminal convictions, and improve treatment of homeless people in Chicago.

Enacting the USICH Guidance in Uptown

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness issued guidance in 2015 titled, “Ending Homelessness for People in Encampments: Advancing the Dialogue.” It calls for a “Housing First” approach to engage people living in encampments. The guidance emphasizes the need for a process that involves community stakeholders, including homeless people who reside there. It also calls for an end to practices that criminalize those who live outside, envisioning permanent housing as the solution instead of shelters or temporary fixes.

In the spring 2016, the Law Project attorneys used the USICH Guidance as a tool to begin the stakeholder process with people living in tents underneath the viaducts of Lake Shore Drive in Uptown. By involving the local alderman, the new commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, and community agencies and leaders, CCH helped secure a city commitment for a pilot program that promises permanent housing to 75 individuals living under Uptown viaducts.

Henderson v. City of Chicago

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless filed suit Tuesday against the city of Chicago on behalf of Robert Henderson in what is believed to be a first test of the state's Homeless Bill of Rights. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times
Law Project Client Robert Henderson (Photo by Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times)

In April 2016, Law Project attorneys filed Henderson v. City of Chicago in Illinois state court, the first case filed that invokes the protections of HBOR. Our client, Robert Henderson, experienced the destruction of his property while living under a viaduct in Chicago’s Near West neighborhood. Streets and Sanitation workers disposed of his medications, family photographs, personal documents, clothing, blankets, and other vital belongings on the morning of November 2, 2015. City officials then told him to leave the viaduct when he confronted them about what happened. Through Mr. Henderson’s case the Law Project hopes to hold the city accountable for its practice of disregarding the property rights of homeless people on the street.