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In the midst of frigid temperatures, ACLU sues over law that will kick some homeless out into the cold



Governor Gina Raimondo at Harrington Hall in 2015

“We have been involved in preparing this lawsuit because as an outreach program, our work centers on helping people who are street homeless – including registered sex offenders – access housing, shelter, and supportive services,” said Megan Smith, Outreach Program Manager, House of Hope CDC. “By forcing them out of shelter, it puts them at risk for harm or death from frostbite, overdose, and vigilantism. It also makes it much harder to help them.”

As emergency workers and homeless rights’ advocates work feverishly 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 tomorrow that, as those advocates had earlier warned public officials would happen, will evict some homeless people out into the bitter cold.

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Lynnette Labinger and John MacDonald, is on behalf of a group of homeless registered sex offenders (RSOs) 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 risks that this law poses to our plaintiffs cannot be understated,” said Labinger. “In addition to putting their health and well-being in danger, this law will make it more difficult for them to access counseling or medical treatment and services, maintain employment, and even comply with the onerous registration requirements that other laws already impose on them. To prevent these dire consequences, I am hopeful that we can obtain a court order to temporarily halt this law’s enforcement.”

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The statute – which was specifically aimed at Harrington Hall – caps the number of registered sex offenders (RSOs) 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, the temperature is supposed to go down to five degrees tomorrow, with a wind chill below zero.

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

“At RIHAP, we advocate for the rights of all homeless persons” said Barbara Freitas, director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP) and a plaintiff in the suit. “Existing legislation and social stigmas already limit the housing options sex offenders can access. This legislation further restricts access to the basic necessity of shelter and will make the lives of these men less stable. Additionally, the current frigid conditions will put the health and safety of these men in grave danger.”

After the General Assembly passed the bill in September, a coalition of community organizations and homeless rights’ advocates urged Governor 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, the Governor signed the bill into law, and it takes effect tomorrow.

Harrington Hall is run by Crossroads Rhode Island, which has been working to move RSOs elsewhere in anticipation of the law’s January 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 RSOs 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 reside.

“Limiting access to a basic human need is counterintuitive and cruel,” said Laura Jaworski, executive director of House of Hope CDC. “This law cherry-picks a segment of those experiencing homelessness, and creates no solutions. It does nothing to further public or individual safety. Registrants are much better served with a known address and cooperative relationships with social service and law enforcement agencies.”

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.

“New Year’s day should be filled with hope, joy and goodwill. For some people, as a result of this callous law, it will be anything but that,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “We hope this lawsuit can stop this cold-hearted law from taking effect.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to upholding and protecting the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Founded in the 1920s by a small group of devoted civil libertarians, today the ACLU is comprised of more than 500,000 members and more than fifty affiliates and chapters nationwide.