ACLU sues over law that pushes some homeless out in the cold

ACLU sues over law that pushes some homeless out in the cold

As emergency workers and homeless rights’ advocates work hard to help move vulnerable homeless Rhode Islanders out of the frigid weather, the ACLU of Rhode Island has filed an emergency lawsuit to halt enforcement of a new state law taking effect Monday that, as those advocates had earlier warned public officials would happen, evicts some homeless people out into the bitter cold, states a release.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynnette Labinger and John McDonald, is on behalf of a group of homeless registered sex offenders who, because of a new state law, will no longer be allowed to stay at the Harrington Hall homeless shelter in Cranston and will instead be forced back into the streets. The statute, which was specifically aimed at Harrington Hall, caps the number of registered sex offenders that can stay there at 10 percent of the shelter’s population, which amounts to 11 people. The lawsuit argues that the law lacks a rational basis in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and also violates anti-discrimination laws. As the law takes effect, temperatures are dipping into the single digits.

The lawsuit calls Harrington Hall “the shelter of last resort for male homeless registered sex offenders in 
Rhode Island, whose only other option is to sleep or camp on the streets,” and notes that the facility has “routinely provided overnight shelter to 
many more than 11 registered sex offenders, including many of the plaintiffs,” without experiencing “any increase or experience of re-offenses.”

In challenging the validity of the law, the suit makes a number of other points:

• Increasing homelessness and transience of this population will only “make it more 
difficult for law enforcement officials to monitor” them.

• By forcing them into transience, “the 10 percent restriction 
increases their lack of stability and access to community and services, increasing the risk to public safety and the risk of re-offense and recidivism."

• Forcing them into “unsheltered homelessness, particularly during the winter months, 
imposes life-threatening conditions upon the plaintiffs.”

After the General Assembly passed the bill in September, a coalition of community organizations and homeless rights’ advocates urged Gov. Gina Raimondo to veto the legislation. The groups had also unsuccessfully urged legislators that, at a minimum, the bill’s effective date be changed so it would not take effect in the middle of winter. Despite the groups’ efforts, Raimondo signed the bill into law.

Harrington Hall is run by Crossroads Rhode Island, which has been working to move registered offenders elsewhere in anticipation of the law’s Jan. 1 implementation date. Karen Santilli, the agency’s CEO and president, filed an affidavit in the lawsuit noting that the shelter typically houses more than 20 sex offenders on a daily basis. The affidavit also notes that RSOs face “systemic barriers to housing,” as they are generally barred from living in public housing, and state law places even further limits on where they can live.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to halt enforcement of the law. The ACLU expects the request to be heard by a judge sometime this week.