- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - An Indianapolis proposal that would establish new protections for the homeless has sparked a tug-of-war between advocates who want to protect the rights of the vulnerable population and those who want to keep the city’s streets clear of panhandlers.

The proposal sponsored by Democratic Councilman Leroy Robinson would require that the homeless be allowed to move freely in public places, have access to emergency medical care, receive equal treatment from city agencies and be allowed privacy for their personal property, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1AmFo7U ).

Robinson said the homeless should already have the same legal rights as others, but advocates say they often face discrimination because they lack a permanent residence.

“Unfortunately, our city goes to great lengths in an effort to criminalize and demoralize the homeless,” Robinson said. “It is important that we are intentional and explicit in our efforts by indicating that the rights of the homeless will be protected, just as any other citizen.”

Opponents fear the proposal goes too far and would make it difficult for police to enforce public nuisance laws. They also say the fiscal impact of the proposal, which also would require the city to help anyone it displaces from public property and store their possessions for 90 days, hasn’t been vetted.

The proposal emerged from a committee in November with a positive recommendation but has been sent back because of a lack of support.

Indianapolis isn’t the first city to struggle with how to address the rights of its homeless while keeping streets clear of panhandlers. Dallas and Atlanta in the past few years have passed tough restrictions on panhandling, while Rhode Island and Illinois have enacted their own homeless bills of rights.

Republican leader Michael McQuillen said the proposed Indianapolis bill of rights is “political grandstanding” that could put the city on the hook to provide care for thousands of people.

“It’s like an over-and-above bill of rights,” McQuillen said. “Anyone in Indianapolis has the same rights as you whether or not you own a home. This would give them additional rights - that they can’t be removed from a public property.”

“The way this proposal’s written, our police would not be able to close down a camp,” he added.

The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention of Greater Indianapolis estimates that the city had 7,500 to 9,500 homeless people in 2014. That’s the highest total since 2007 and represents a 19 percent increase over 2013.

While officials agree that something needs to be done, McQuillen worries that the costs of serving the homeless could balloon if the city is legally bound to provide services for all of them.

“I just feel like it’s a feel-good holiday proposal,” McQuillen said. “Really, it’s an unfunded mandate that’s just going to make the situation worse.”

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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