What is the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS)? Does the law require homeless service providers to record information about clients?  If so, where does that information go and how is it used?  If I don’t answer the questions, will I be turned away?

A Homeless Management Information System is a database of personal facts about the homeless people in a community.  These facts are gathered from people when they get services from non-profits and government agencies that receive federal funds designated for homeless services.  So, if someone spends a few nights in a shelter that gets noted in the database.  If he needs insulin at the shelter, that gets noted in the database.  If he goes to some other funded facility for a shower and shave, that is entered into the database.  If he participates in vocational counseling or is a veteran or underwent a gender transformation, those facts go in the database.  As you can see, some of these facts are gathered just as a result of participation and some are gathered when participants answer questionnaires.

These databases exist because every local and state service provider that uses federal money to provide programs, services, or resources to homeless people must collect information about how it spends the money and then report that information to the federal government.  All that they report to the federal agencies (HUD, HHS, and the VA) are the numbers, no names.  They do use the names in the community though, so that the various providers can have a total picture of each person’s needs.

Every community of homeless service providers, whether it is a city or a county or a region—depending on how homeless services are organized in that area—contracts with a database vendor to create its own HMIS.  Then, as somebody goes from one homeless service agency to the next, he or she does not have to go through the whole exhaustive intake process each time and the provider can see any facts that might help them to best serve the client and make referrals to other entities or new programs that will be relevant to that individual consumer.

You have two ways of protecting your information:

  1. You can refuse to answer any of the questions that you object to. Refusing to answer will not make you ineligible for the service, but it will mess-up the provider’s records and can compromise its future funding.  In the unlikely event that a provider says that you are legally required to answer a particular question if you want the service, you should direct that person to page 11 of the HMIS Data Standards Manual https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/HMIS-Data-Standards-Manual.pdf which specifically says that “client refused is considered a valid response.”
  2. You can obtain a copy of your database report and tell the provider to remove any items that you do not want to have on record.

Sources:

  1. See Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 578 to read the regulations about Continuum of Care Services for homeless populations. http://www.ecfr.gov
  2. Consult the HMIS Data Dictionary for clear definitions of just about every topic related to homeless life and government funding. https://www.hudexchange.info/resource/3824/hmis-data-dictionary/
  3. The federal HEARTH Act established the requirements for federal agencies to collect and utilize client data and more accurately audit the way resources are allocated for the homeless population. Read about this law and related actions at https://www.hudexchange.info/homelessness-assistance/hearth-act/.
  4. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates local and state efforts to eliminate homelessness.  You can see their research publications, some of which use data from the HMIS collections, at http://usich.gov/usich_resources/.

Thank you to Bill Hale who suggested this array of questions, made sure I knew about resources, and checked his own data in the HMIS.

What legal rights do users of public bathing facilities have?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Aside from the already mentioned health regulations stating that where there are toilets there must be sinks and where there are sinks there must be soap, the legal rights connected to using public bathing facilities depend, as always, on whether the place is run by the government or a private entity. The particular activities that people may undertake in the facility depend on the staffing, physical plant, and monetary resources of the place and are not a matter of law. They do not have to allow shaving or nail cutting or tooth-brushing, for example. They might only have showers, not bathtubs. They might only allow people to bathe individually to prevent people from having sexual encounters there. Law is about the way people and government behave toward each other and how society operates, it rarely ever declares that people are entitled to do any particular activity in a certain place.

Sometimes there are bathing facilities at churches, shelters, nonprofit community centers and other privately operated places that are funded by donations from individuals and businesses. These privately operated facilities are obligated to function according to the direction of their own boards and their funding sources. This means that private facilities can have their own rules and limitations about the circumstances under which they allow people to wash there or obtain hygiene supplies. It also means that they can be unfair in providing their services: allowing some people to have more time than others, excluding some people, not providing notice of rule changes, etc…

If a private agency or organization gets government funding toward a particular service, like establishing bathing facilities, there may be regulatory legal obligations connected with using that funding. The whole facility is probably not subject to those obligations,[i] only the component providing the government-funded service. To find out abut those obligations, which will probably be about the way the service is provided and the conditions of the facility, it is necessary to find out which government agency (i.e., state department of health or county department of welfare or city special grant bureau, etc…) gives that funding and then contact that government agency to obtain a copy of the regulations and instructions for interacting with them if you believe their regulations have not been followed.[ii]

Sometimes, municipalities or counties install public showers and other washing facilities as part of food banks, health clinics, community centers and other social service agencies that those government entities operate. Those kinds of facilities are considered government property because their buildings and their operations are paid for out of the ordinary tax base either through the regular budget stream or specially-dedicated government funds like limited term grants. Public users are entitled to civil rights protections when accessing these government operated facilities. The civil rights protections include things like equal access, freedom from religious impositions (i.e., they can’t force you to say a prayer or participate in religious counseling in order to obtain the service), free speech, freedom from being searched unless the search is a routine security process used for everyone, privacy…   (Read more about civil rights on Findlaw.)

All of the rights enumerated in the last paragraph are simply listed as general civil rights principles. Civil rights principles arise from the ways court cases interperet amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  So, civil rights is an area of law in which there is often not a clear rule for everyone to follow.  Rather, it is a constant analysis of comparisons:

1. weighing the government’s purpose along with its rule and

2. determining whether the rule, as applied in the situation being questioned, is structured just to serve that government interest. If it limits people unfairly by going beyond the scope of the government interest, it violates civil rights.

A helpful resource for learning about civil rights is Justia’s Annotated U.S. Constitution.  Read the sections about the Amendments to the Constitution to find easy explanations of how courts have interpreted those amendments.  Note that the list of amendments tells what subjects are covered in each amendment (due process, free speech, etc…)  Click on the hyperlinked name of any case on that site and you’ll get to the Supreme Court’s full decision.

Here are two examples demonstrating how civil rights can be outweighed by significant government interests:

  •  If a member of the public, who routinely carries a weapon, comes to the public washing facility, the facility can probably justify locking the weapon away while the visitor is on the premises because the facility has an obligation to prevent harm to its staff and users.
  • People are supposed to have the right to free speech in a public place. However, if someone comes into a washing facility and makes threatening comments to other people bathing there, the facility (i.e., the government) may be at risk of losing the victims of those comments. If the whole purpose of the washing facility is to give people a place to get clean and try to avoid disease, but people were too scared to go there, then it wouldn’t be an effective washing facility anymore unless the place refused to allow threats.

[i] The whole facility can be required to make changes in order to comply with legal requirements and accommodate the government funded part. For example, the building might have to install new doors, or fire safety devices, or a stair railing, or make other kinds of modifications to the building entrance or the building’s systems in order to make the government funded bathing service properly safe and available to public users.

[2] State agencies, such as health departments, publish their regulations in administrative codes.  All of the states’ administrative codes are available on the Internet from the National Association of Secretaries of State at http://www.administrativerules.org/.

Is the government required to provide you with bathing facilities?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

It has been held that a criminal defendant who was not provided with soap, a comb, and other basic hygiene amenities in jail was entitled to a new trial because his dirty and disheveled appearance may have turned the jury against him.[i] That is an example of one of the two situations in which the government is required to provide any kind of washing facilities: those in which government buildings make toilets available to the public and those in which the government has custody of someone, as in the case of the jail inmate or when the person is in someplace like a county or state-run nursing home, etc… Other than in those instances, the public cannot expect that the law entitles them to a place in which to get clean or even to get supplies for washing or other personal hygiene functions.

In government custody situations, as the previous section demonstrates, regulations about the condition of hygiene facilities in institutions might come from the government agency of which the institution is a component or from the public health code. The standards that have to be followed when public restrooms or bathing facilities are available in restaurants, other businesses, or in government buildings are in state public health codes.[ii]

A clear and detailed example of standard public restroom requirements is in the Illinois public health code which includes specifics like, “Lavatories shall be provided and located within or immediately adjacent to all toilet rooms or vestibules. All lavatories shall be provided with hot and cold running water that can be tempered by means of a valve or combination faucet” and “A supply of bar, liquid, or powdered hand-cleaning soap or detergent in a dispenser shall be available at each lavatory.”[iii] The Kentucky public restroom regulations are also very detailed with statements like, “an adequate supply of toilet tissue shall be provided at each toilet facility at all times” and “hand washing facilities, including running water, soap, and individual cloth or paper towels, or other method for drying hands approved by the cabinet, shall be provided…The use of the common towel is prohibited.”[iv]

Oddly, even though there are no general legal requirements mandating public bathing facilities for people who don’t have homes, there are some circumstances in which the government provides hygiene supplies to members of the public who don’t need something as basic as a place to bathe and who aren’t necessarily financially needy. Notable examples of this are equipping drug users with clean syringes and dispensing condoms to teenagers.

The legal sources for these actions are public health regulations, made by state and county health departments, often in furtherance of the government’s interest in preventing the spread of HIV or other viruses, diseases, etc… It seems reasonable to ask why a government would make a law entitling members of the pubic only to such limited hygiene supplies and not just ordinary sinks and showers that are fundamental to fighting so many kinds of sickness. Lobbyists for the poor, and poor people themselves, can ask that question of lawmakers if bathing facilities are not available in a community.


[i] State v. Maisonet, 763 A.2d 1254 (N.J. 2001).

[ii] State health agencies’ Web sites are listed at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/international/relres.html. Within each agency’s site, look for a link to “laws” or “regulations” or use their search tool for more specific terms such as “cleanliness” or “homeless” or “shelter,” etc..

[iii] Ill. Admin. Code tit. 77, § 895.50(g), (g)(1) (2007).

[iv] 902 Ky Admin. Regs. 10:010:2:7, 12, 13 (2006).

Is it legal to kick someone out of a store or restaurant just because he or she smells bad?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Yes, businesses serving the public have the freedom to eject prospective customers just because they smell bad. In fact, they can kick people out just because they are not wearing shoes or a shirt. Stores and restaurants do not have to do business with anybody if they don’t want to. Granted, they cannot discriminate on the basis of disability or race or other categories recognized under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.[i]  But, being dirty and smelling bad (no matter how anyone measures the badness of smell) are simply not protected by law the way race and disability are.

There are some contract claims that could arise if a customer is told to leave after he has started to make a purchase. Under contract law, people have legal obligations to each other if one has offered something and the other has accepted the offer and done something to rely on that offer. Making payment is usually the action that shows that the buyer is relying on the seller to fulfill the order. So, at the point when a customer has already ordered food or merchandise and has paid for it, the business has a contractual obligation to return the money or provide the order.

If it is a sit-down restaurant and the customer ordered the food expecting to stay there and eat it, but was then told that he could only have the food to go, the customer could claim that he was entitled to get his money back on the grounds that the contract was breached by the business which, in giving him takeout food instead of an in-restaurant experience, was changing the terms of the deal without getting the customer’s agreement.

There isn’t necessarily anything tangible to be gained by having this understanding of the legal analysis; the dispute isn’t worth enough to take to court and there wouldn’t be any change in the business’s practices just because of one lawsuit. Nevertheless, knowing how the law would apply to this kind of transaction can help a person decide in advance how to control the communications and the result.

Since a deal is normally not solidified until the money is handed over, the customer should not pay that money until he has clearly been assured of what he will get for it. If the situation is one in which the goods or services are provided first and money is paid after that, the merchant takes the first risk not the customer. In that case, the merchant is the one looking for the assurance that the customer will uphold his end of the deal.

Think about the scene in the sit-down restaurant again. A dirty smelly customer comes in, is seated, looks at a menu, and maybe even orders. It is conceivable that at this point the manager of the restaurant could think that this customer might not be able to pay. If the restaurant hasn’t served the food yet, and the manager asks the customer to leave, the customer can indicate that he does have the money to pay for the meal. At that point, the manager might just admit that the customer has to leave because he smells bad. Still, the legally-informed customer can continue to handle the whole thing like a contract negotiation thereby saving his dignity while giving the restaurant one more chance to get its money. The customer can recommend to the manager that a change of seating might satisfy the restaurant’s concern about his smell and still enable the restaurant to make this sale.


[i] See http://topics.law.cornell.edu/wex/equal_protection for an introduction to equal protection with links to state and federal constitutional sources.

Is it illegal to smell bad?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Local nuisance laws legislate against interfering with other people’s “use and enjoyment” of a place. And individual facilities or entities, including government offices, can make their own rules about how to handle bad-smelling people. The legal system is then used to argue about whether those rules comply with existing law and whether the rules are being applied in a just way.

Public buildings, meaning those operated by government, such as libraries and post offices differ from private businesses, such as malls or individual stores. Under the Constitution, these “government actors” are required to treat people in certain ways that are enumerated in the Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional amendments as interpreted by cases analyzing those parts of the Constitution. That body of law is known as civil rights law and is supplemented by federal civil rights statutes which further regulate the treatment of citizens by government actors.

It is fundamental to a democratic government that citizens have access to government. When that access involves being physically present and the government wants to limit anything about the way access is provided, those limits have to be made within the scope of civil rights law. This kind of limit, specifically regarding the way people smell, has been examined by cases in which public libraries tried to keep bad smelling people out of their buildings.

The flagship case of precedent for bad grooming in public libraries is Kreimer v. Morristown [1] in which the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a library rule that said “Patrons whose bodily hygiene is offensive so as to constitute a nuisance to other persons shall be required to leave the building.”[ii] Kreimer, a homeless library patron barred by that rule from entering the library, asserted in court that the rule violated his First Amendment rights to use the public library for reading, writing and thinking. But the court held that “this rule prohibits one patron from unreasonably interfering with other patrons’ use and enjoyment of the Library; it further promotes the Library’s interest in maintaining its facilities in a sanitary and attractive condition.”[iii]

Subsequent courts have also upheld policies excluding unclean people from accessing public libraries. But in 2001, a District of Columbia court[iv] found a library policy to be unconstitutionally vague because it listed as a minor offense, “Conduct or personal condition objectionable to other persons using the Library’s facilities or which interfere with the orderly provision of library services….[including] objectionable appearance (barefooted, bare-chested, body odor, filthy clothing, etc…).”

 

The court explained that having a few examples of what a person might consider to be objectionable followed by “etc.” simply did not set forth a clear limit on what would be tolerated. That court also said the library rule violated Fourteenth Amendment due process rights because it didn’t provide enough information for patrons to know in advance whether their appearance would be acceptable, especially because any employee who happened to be watching the door could make the decision about acceptable appearance according to his or her discretion at that moment. Clearly, just because there is a policy about body odor doesn’t mean it is a legal policy.

Libraries are not the only public buildings where a person’s odor or general hygiene might interfere with the comfort of others. Courts, post offices, and transportation facilities are other examples to consider. Courts usually have various decorum rules requiring that behavior in court not distract from the trial or hearing and declaring that the court is owed respect. Judges can use their own discretion to interpret those rules and have been known to remove trial participants and even lawyers for what the judge has deemed inappropriate dress or grooming.[v]

One can reason by comparison that the amount of time spent in a post office or on a bus is much shorter than in a library or courtroom and so the odor problem would be less significant in those places. It could also be said that because access to the court for the sake of asserting or defending one’s rights is required by law, a person simply has to be allowed there in whatever condition he appears. But those kinds of analysis are simply conjectures; a jury might not agree with them. Since case law has declared it acceptable for public libraries to limit access based on hygiene, there is a foundation for the same kind of limitation in other public buildings.


[i] Kreimer v. Morristown, 958 F.2d 1242 (3d Cir., 1992).

[ii] Id. at 1264.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Armstrong v. D.C. Public Library, 154 F. Supp. 2d 67 (D.C. Cir. 2001).

[v] 17 AM. JUR. 2d Contempt §56 (updated to 2007).

If you remove soap or paper towels from a restroom in a public facility is it necessarily stealing?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The laws involving public restrooms tend to be in the health code, not in the crimes code. They generally require that any place making toilets available must also have sinks, that sufficient facilities are available for both genders, and that restaurants have to include public restrooms. The lack of a specific law about taking supplies from restrooms does not mean that behavior is legal. (The “health code” link takes you to statutes. For states’ health department regulations, navigate through this portal starting with the name of your state.)

The general definition of theft is an act “done with intent to deprive the owner permanently of the possession, use, or benefit of his property.”[i] So, removing paper products and soap that are provided only to enable you to fully use the public restroom can be seen as stealing (probably “theft of public property”) because doing so deprives the owner, be it a business or a government building with a public restroom, of those resources which the health code requires them to have available to other customers.[ii]

Since it would be a theft of inexpensive goods, a facility might be more likely to confiscate stolen soap and paper that they find in someone’s possession instead of calling the police and pressing charges. They might also ban a thief from future admission.

Obtaining an employee’s permission to remove supplies from the restroom will probably prevent it from being an act of theft. Employees are considered to legitimately express the authority of the establishment, so if one of them allows a person to remove supplies then legal analysis would reason that the owner was not being deprived of the stuff because he, through the employee, gave it away.


[i] Black’s Law Dictionary 1516 (8th ed. 2004).[ii] Be aware that health codes are in the local and states’ regulations, not in the local and states’ ordinances or statutes, because the Health Departments, not the legislatures, make the health rules. Examples of state regulations requiring sinks, soap, towels, etc… are: Ind. Code § 16-42-5-14 (2007); Minn R. 4626.1095 5-204.11 (2006); 25 Tex. Admin. Code §229.167(e) (2007); Okla. Admin. Code § 310:285-3-6 (2005); 15A N.C. Admin.Code 18A.2409 (2007); 6 Colo. Code Regs. § 1010-10-2.7 (2007); Ala. Admin. Code r. 420-5-17 (2006).

Can you open fire hydrants to get water for bathing?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Only fire departments, and occasionally other units of local governments, are allowed to open fire hydrants. Because of the significant public safety risk of having inadequate water pressure with which to fight fires, punishment for illegally opening a fire hydrant tends to be severe.

There is a Uniform Fire Code in the United States that sets forth model laws about firefighting and fire protection systems for states to implement. In sections 1001.6.2 of that code, it says: “Fire hydrants and fire appliances required by this code to be installed and maintained shall not be removed, tampered with or otherwise disturbed except for the purpose of extinguishing fire, training, recharging or making necessary repairs, or when allowed by the fire department.”

More generally, the section just before that, 1001.6.1 declares that “[a]pparatus, equipment and appurtenances belonging to or under the supervision and control of the fire department shall not be molested, tampered with, damaged or otherwise disturbed unless authorized by the chief.”[i]  This uniform law might be incorporated into state statutes, but is more likely to be in the municipal or county code[ii] because fire departments, even when operated by volunteers, are authorized by those governments. Because opening a fire hydrant, outside of municipal authority, is an offense against the government, doing so is a crime. Therefore, punishment for violating a fire hydrant law involves at least a ticket and at most a jail term.


[i] Unif. Fire Code §1001.6.1, 2 (1997).[ii] Local codes are available through https://www.municode.com/library/.