Tent sites at Wallace Marine Park on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Homeless people could soon be a protected class in Salem under city law.

The proposed change would prohibit employers, landlords and businesses from denying service or discriminating against people solely because they don’t have housing. It gives the Human Rights Commission the ability to educate business owners and collect reports of discrimination but doesn’t carry fines or other enforcement.

The city code already prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, marital status, familial status, national origin, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and source of income. 

On Monday night, the city council unanimously voted to move forward with amending the code , including adding housing status, changing gendered language and changing several exceptions to discrimination in housing. City staff will develop specific wording that the council will vote on at a later meeting.

Angelo Arredondo, chair of the Human Rights Commission, said the group had a special task force that worked to revise Chapter 97 of the city code, the section that focuses on human rights.

Adding housing status was spurred on by the results of the commission’s annual discrimination survey where homeless people surveyed reported facing harassment daily. One respondent said drivers revved their engines at them or yelled at them to “get a job.”

In November, Salem Reporter wrote about a homeless man who was attacked while sleeping.

“I think it’s important to know that the houseless population is diverse, and we can’t presume a person’s characteristics or behaviors based on housing status,” Arredondo said.

He said the commission hopes that by adding housing status as a protected class, they’ll see more reports of discrimination from people experiencing homelessness.

If the change is made, Arredondo said Salem would be the third city in the country to make housing status a protected class. Madison, Wisconsin was the first to do so in 2015, followed by Louisville, Kentucky this year.

Say, for example, a person experiencing homelessness is denied service in a coffee shop.

Arredondo said if the commission received a report of discrimination, they would talk to the owner and find out why it happened.

“Are they doing a crime? If not, you cannot discriminate against them just because they are houseless,” he said.

Arredondo said if the changes are made the intent is to educate businesses as the law goes into effect.

He emphasized that the change isn’t intended to get people committing crimes out of trouble.

The city’s Human Rights Commission receives reports of discrimination that aren’t crimes police need to handle, like if someone is called a racial slur.

Virginia Stapleton, who brought the motion to council, said she was appalled when she read the latest results of the city’s discrimination survey.

She said when the commission came forward with recommendations for change her response was automatic: “We need to do what we can.”

She said in council voting for the change, they’re setting the expectation for the city.

Housing status isn’t the only change being proposed.

There’s a section in the code currently that allows a landlord to kick out a tenant renting a room in their house if they’re gay, for example.

That’s because some small rentals are on the list of exceptions against discriminating on the basis on sexual orientation and gender identity in city code.

“We saw that, and we were like how is this acceptable? How is this in our law?” Arredondo said.

The commission wants to remove two of the exceptions, which currently apply to landlords renting a room in their own home, or renting a second unit in a duplex or two-unit building they also live in.

He said the commission is also seeking to change gendered language in that section of code, replacing “himself” and “herself” with themselves to include nonbinary people.

“We want to make language more inclusive,” he said. “It’s because in a sense we thought this (section of code) was kind of old fashioned.”

Arredondo said if the city makes the changes to its law, specifically about people experiencing homelessness, he hopes other cities will follow suit. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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