District of Columbia Becomes First Jurisdiction to Define People Experiencing Homelessness as a Protected Class

February 15, 2023 by Thomas Stanley-Becker

Rich, a 28-year-old man, has been homeless in Washington, D.C. for the past four years. He reports that he experienced discrimination based on his skin color and dreadlocked hair – and his homeless status. Rich reports that he had trouble obtaining care for his two children and finding employment because of his homeless status. In September, Rich applied for a fast-food job, but was not hired because he did not have an address.[1]

In September, the D.C. Council amended its Human Rights Act to include people experiencing homelessness as a class protected from discrimination.[2] D.C. now prohibits discrimination based on homeless status along with 13 other protected traits.[3] In D.C., it is now unlawful for employers, educational institutions, insurers, the D.C. government, and owners of housing and commercial space to discriminate against people experiencing homelessness. [4] Additionally, it is illegal to deny people experiencing homelessness the full and equal enjoyment of any place of public accommodation.[5]

The law makes D.C. the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to establish homeless status as a protected class.[6] Proponents of the law say it took the city more than a decade to enact it and that it is especially timely in today’s difficult economic environment.[7]

The D.C. law is novel as it provides persons experiencing homelessness access to remedies for discrimination based on their homeless status. [8] Persons experiencing homelessness may file a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights or in court when they experience discrimination on the basis of their homeless status.[9]

The discrimination Rich encountered in finding employment is common among people experiencing homelessness in D.C. and other large cities.[10] The problem of discrimination against people experiencing homelessness in D.C. was documented in a 2014 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH).[11] People experiencing homelessness reported facing discrimination based on their homeless status despite existing protections for other characteristics in the D.C. Human Rights Act, such as race.[12] The study of 142 people found that a high percentage of persons experiencing homelessness believe they have been discriminated against in encounters with law enforcement, private businesses, and medical and social service agencies.[13] Approximately two-thirds of the surveyed people perceived discrimination by law enforcement and private businesses.[14] The NCH found that discrimination against people experiencing homelessness was pervasive.[15]

While other cities and states have adopted or are considering homeless bills of rights, that legislation creates narrower protection and lacks effective enforcement mechanisms.[16] For example, Connecticut’s 2013 law only prohibits discrimination against persons experiencing homelessness in employment, public accommodations, and voting, while also protecting personal information and privacy.[17]

Cities and states should follow D.C.’s lead and make homeless status a protected class.


[1] Carey L. Biron, Sexism, racism … home-ism? D.C. bans discrimination for homeless, Context, Oct. 7, 2022, https://www.context.news/socioeconomic-inclusion/sexism-racismhome-ism-dc-bans-discrimination-for-homeless.

[2] D.C. Code Ann. § 2-1401.01 (West 2022).

[3] The D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and educational institutions based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibilities, political affiliation, disability, and homeless status. D.C. Code Ann. § 2.1402.11(a) (West 2022).

[4] Id. at §§ 2-1402.11-2.1402.24, 2.1402.41-2.1402.73.

[5] Id. at §§ 2-1402.31-2-1402.31.

[6] Biron, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] D.C. Code Ann. § 2-1403.13 (West 2017).

[9] Id.

[10] See generally Sarah Golabek-Goldman, Ban the Address: Combating Employment Discrimination Against the Homeless, 126 Yale L.J. 1788, 1790-92 (2017).

[11] Nat’l Coal. for the Homeless, Discrimination and Economic Profiling among the Homeless of Washington, D.C., at 3 (2014), https://pffcdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/DiscriminationReport2014.pdf.

[12] Id. D.C. Code Ann. § 2-1402.21 (West 2022).

[13] Id. at 3-4.

[14] Id. at 4-5.

[15] Id. at 4.

[16] Id. See also Nat’l Coal. for the Homeless, Building a Movement to End Homelessness, Homeless Bill of Rights, https://nationalhomeless.org/campaigns/bill-of-right/; Sarah K. Rankin, A Homeless Bill of Rights (Revolution), 46 Seton Hall L. Rev. 383 (2015).

[17] Scott Keyes, Connecticut Passes Landmark ‘Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights’ Law, ThinkProgress (Jun. 12, 2013, 2:30 PM), https://thinkprogress.org/connecticut-passes-landmark-homeless-persons-bill-of-rights-law-c70676e3b6d/.