What are the legal requirements for getting an address? If trailers have addresses, can you get one for another parked vehicle?

**** 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. ****

In the United States, all land is presumed to belong to the government unless an individual or entity holds title to it. So, a person cannot simply settle comfortably on some land, or park a vehicle there, and try to get an address for it. Getting a home address begins with the government’s making the land available for private residence. Then a real estate developer, or whoever has bought the land from the government, gets the first title to it and records his title at the deeds office, usually a component of the county government.  If you need to find out who owns a piece of land, you are allowed to search for the deed because it is a public record held at the deeds office.

Title is legal ownership of land. A deed is the document showing that someone has title to a piece of land. The deeds office identifies pieces of land by giving them block and lot numbers, known as the legal address. When the landowner applies for local permits to build structures on that land, a street address (the address used by the postal service) is assigned to it. If a landowner opts to make a trailer park on his land, then his building permit will establish street addresses for the separate spaces in the trailer park.

Look for more information about real estate law at Nolo.com and Justia.

Are shelters allowed to search through your possessions? Are shelters allowed to collect information about you?

**** 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 is said that there are negative laws, saying “though shalt not” and positive laws saying, “though shalt.” In the context of shelters collecting information and going through possessions, here’s how those apply:

Negative Law

Because shelters have legal obligations to get healthcare for sick and injured residents, to assist the police looking for certain residents, and to fulfill contractual obligations with their funders to provide basic data about the number of people served, they have legitimate reasons for collecting identifying information about their residents. Knowing that they are liable for the safety of residents, they have reasons to be sure that people do not bring in weapons, illegal drugs, or other dangerous items. This could all be restated saying, “thou shalt not let residents hurt others or suffer harm.”

 

Positive Law

There are ever-increasing community initiatives to reduce homelessness. These are typically coordinated by government agencies, such as the housing authority and the health department, acting under the authority of their federal counterparts. They bring about the construction of new shelters and the implementation of new social services.

When the agency rules and regulations say things like, “every shelter resident must be informed about the public housing program” or “every shelter resident who appears to be unable to sustain gainful employment shall be referred to a disability assessment screening for potential application for Social Security or SSI Disability benefits” they are assuring that the homeless find out about their services. They are saying to shelter staff, “thou shalt collect enough information about residents that you can give them the best possible service referrals.”

A national directory of homeless shelters is available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development at http://www.hud.gov/homeless/hmlsagen.cfm.

If the police come looking for you, does a shelter have to turn you over to them?

**** 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. ****

A place of shelter is not a place of asylum from the law. On the other hand, it is also not a place where the homeless should feel at risk of being rounded-up by the police. Unless someone commits a crime in a shelter or the police come to the shelter looking for a particular person, shelter staff have no legal obligation to identify residents to police.

If the police come to question a resident as a potential witness or perpetrator, someone who prevents the officers from having access to that resident can be charged with obstruction of justice or obstruction of process.[i]

There is a whole spectrum of interactions that might occur between shelter staff and police who come looking for a resident.  At one end of the spectrum are the police with a warrant to search or seize.  They might be there to seize a person or evidence.  If they come to seize a person, the warrant is an arrest warrant.

As explained elsewhere in this blog, judges issue search and seizure warrants when police and prosecutors have given them probable cause to believe that evidence of a particular crime is located in the place to be searched.[ii] When the shelter-police interaction is at this end of the spectrum, the shelter has no choice but to comply with the police. Staff who interfere with the officers’ carrying out the warrant are blatantly obstructing justice.  They might be handcuffed and immediately arrested so they can’t continue to impede the police work.

At the other end of the spectrum is a scene in which police have heard a vague complaint about a minor offense and come to the shelter asking the staff to present all of the male residents ages twenty to forty who have blue jeans. Here the police have not conveyed that a crime has occurred or that they even know who they are looking for.  They are putting the staff in the dubious position of disrupting multiple innocent residents who came into the shelter only seeking a safe indoor place to rest.

At that point, the police might be causing the serious interference-interference with the fundamental purpose of the shelter.  The shelter staff have to do their jobs and provide the residents with a place to rest.  It would probably not be an obstruction of justice if they asked the police for more information so that fewer residents were interrupted or if they encouraged the police to come back and look for their suspect outside the building the next morning when the residents left for the day.

In between these two poles of the spectrum are numerous possibilities. Maybe a victim or a witness saw an attacker run into the shelter.  Maybe the police have been following a shelter resident as part of a major investigation.  Maybe the homeless have been crime targets and the police want to get to know them and help them avoid being victims.  The decision about whether to charge shelter staff with obstruction will depend on the police officers’ assessment of the public safety risk involved if they are hindered from getting to a shelter resident, i.e. it depends on police discretion.[iii]

There are other potential criminal charges, aside from obstruction crimes, that shelter staff can face for not identifying residents to the police. They might, for example, be harboring a fugitive. Getting between the police and a shelter resident they’ve come to arrest could be harboring a fugitive.[iv] Even when counselors at a shelter have confidential knowledge of residents’ crimes, it does not mean that those counselors can hide those clients when the police come looking for them.  They might be able to avoid disclosing clients’ counseling records for evidence, but they cannot keep the police away from those clients.[v]

Shelter staff can also have criminal liability for not identifying a resident when they know the resident is repeatedly committing a crime.  The first time a shelter worker sees a resident stealing from other residents or dealing drugs in the shelter, he has a basic citizen’s obligation to report the crime to the police.  If he doesn’t report the crime that first time, he’s not likely to be charged with a crime himself. (Although he should serve as a witness for the prosecution since he saw the illegal act.)

After the first time however, accomplice or conspiracy charges might be brought against the shelter worker who knows about a pattern of criminal behavior in the shelter but doesn’t report it to the police.  Basically, an accomplice is someone who “gave assistance or encouragement or failed to perform a legal duty to prevent”[vi] a crime.   A conspirator joins with others “for the purpose of committing…some unlawful or criminal act.”[vii]


[i] Obstruction of justice or process is defined and examined in 67 C.J.S. Obstructing Justice § 24 (2002). In the federal system, the statute against obstruction of justice/process is published in 18 USC §§ 1501-20 (2007). If local or state police are obstructed in their efforts, the state’s version of an obstruction of justice charge would apply. Find these by using the following terms in the index to the state statutes: obstruction of justice, police, interference with arrest, interference with process, and crimes.

[ii] Robert M. Bloom, Searches, Seizures, and Warrants (Praeger 2003). This book tells about every aspect of law that applies to warrants for searches and seizures.

[iii] To learn more about police discretion, See American Bar Association, Standards Relating to the Urban Police Function 1-43 (1972 & Supp. 1973). (These standards were developed by a joint committee of ABA members and members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police). Also, search in the National Criminal Justice Resource Center for the phrase “police discretion” to get links to full-text articles, reports, and book chapters on the topic. http://www.ncjrs.gov/index.html

[iv] 39 Am. Jur. 2d Harboring Criminals § 3 (2006).

[v] A related but much more extreme legal obligation arises when a mental health professional knows that a client seeks to hurt someone. When that happens, the mental health professional is allowed to divulge confidential client information to police, but only to the extent necessary to protect the client’s intended victim. To read more about this and see a comparison of state laws, see John C. Williams, Liability of One Treating Mentally Afflicted Patient For Failure to Warn or Protect Third Persons Threatened by Patient, 83 A.L.R. 3d 1201.

[vi] Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Ed. 17 (1990).

[vii] Id. at 309.

Are shelters legally obligated to maintain a certain standard of cleanliness?

**** 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. ****

Shelters, along with any other facilities that house groups of people, are subject to public health regulations regarding sanitation, rodent control, and safety just as they are subject to fire safety codes and zoning ordinances. But because so many different types of places offer various levels of sheltering and state and county health regulations vary, there is not an established standard guaranteeing that sheets are washed every day or that floors are always swept or that other measures of cleanliness are assured in every shelter.

A shelter resident who becomes sick or injured because of conditions in the shelter might be able to sue the shelter for negligence, depending on the situation. It could be the premises liability type of negligence if the sickness or injury was predictable.  An example of predictable sickness might be when a shelter with heavy dust and mold causes an asthmatic resident to have a serious asthma attack.

If the sickness or injury has nothing to do with the condition of the building, but it happens in the shelter, failing to help a resident in need might count as negligence. Ordinarily, people in the U.S. have no duty to rescue somebody.[i] But innkeepers, businesses, and other places open to the public do have to help people who become sick or ill while there.[ii] Since the law imposes that duty, breaching it to the extent that harm comes to a resident would be negligence.

There are other reasons that the homeless might sue for healthier shelter conditions.

Consider some examples from New York City:  In the mid 1990’s there was a line of New York City cases about homeless people who were temporarily housed in the Emergency Assistance offices where they went to apply for space in shelters.[iii] While it would seem that at least sleeping in an office would be better than sleeping outside, the Court of Appeals of New York declared that “The consequences of the City’s practices include families sleeping on the chairs and on the floor, washing in the sinks of public restrooms, and suffering self-evidently unsanitary and unsafe traumas.”[iv]

There was also a group of homeless people with HIV-related illness who sued the city seeking access to shelters better-suited to their health needs.[v] The city had a Comprehensive Care Program that equipped some shelters to particularly care for homeless AIDS patients. These plaintiffs with HIV-related illness had some health accommodations in the shelters, but were not entitled to shelter conditions comparable to those available to AIDS patients.  A lower court had found that housing twelve to a room constituted a tuberculosis risk for people with HIV-related illness.[vi] The appeal concluded that plans for health and hygiene in shelters were within the authority of health and housing agencies not the courts.

Shelters tend not to have special accommodations for every specific health need. Diabetics cannot expect that a shelter will have meals that are suitable for their diets and ready supplies of insulin. Asthmatics cannot expect that a shelter will take extreme measures to reduce its dust and mold to assure that they can breathe.

The Centers for Disease Control maintains a list of state and local health departments.[vii] Reading a local health department’s rules and program descriptions is the most direct way to learn what public health services are available to the homeless. There may be drop-in clinics, day programs, special facilities for certain health and hygiene functions, etc… and these may be outside of shelters or on-site at shelters.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council provides a free online manual titled “Shelter Health: Essentials of Care for People Living in Shelter.”[viii] This manual is not a legal document and does not legally obligate shelters to do anything. It is intended as a source of information for providers of group housing. It tells shelters how to keep the facility as hygienic as possible and provides clues about how to recognize health problems so that shelter staff can make helpful referrals for clients to get appropriate medical care. The manual is full of details like sample policies about laundry, hand washing, lice control, and cleaning body fluids from floors, furniture, and bathrooms. Homeless people or their advocates seeking to improve the local legal standards for shelters could use the manual to get examples of the improvements that should be made.


[i] Restatement (Third) of Torts § 37 (Proposed Final Draft No. 1 2005). 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 90 (2006). To find cases making this point, look in West Digests (indexes to cases) using the topic “negligence” and the key numbers 214 and 282.

[ii] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A (1965 & Supp. 2006). 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence §§ 90-91 (2006). The case of Baker v. Fenneman & Brown Properties, L.L.C., 793 N.E.2d 1203 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) shows that business owners and innkeepers and others who have special relationships with sick and injured visitors to their establishments do have a duty to get those victims medical care.

[iii] McCain v. Dinkins, 639 N.E.2d 1132 (N.Y. 1994). This case culminated the series of cases about temporarily housing people in the Emergency Assistance Unit offices. It summarizes the cases leading up to it.

[iv] Id. at 1136.

[v] Mixon v. Grinker, 669 N.E.2d 819 (N.Y. 1996).

[vi] Id. at 820.

[vii] List of state and local health departments http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/international/relres.html. If this Web address changes, go to http://www.cdc.gov/ and use its search box to find the most recent list.

[viii] The shelter health manual is at http://www.nhchc.org/resources/clinical/tools-and-support/shelter-health/.

Can participation in religious activities be required in a church-run shelter?

**** 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, if a church[i] operates a shelter as part of its ministry,[ii] it can require shelter residents to participate in religious classes or services in order to continue staying at the shelter.[iii]  But, if the shelter component of the church is really a government-operated service that is merely renting space in a church, then religious activities cannot be required of the residents.[iv]  

The First Amendment says that the government cannot make laws establishing religion.[v]  This has been interpreted to mean that when the government provides funding for religious institutions, it can only fund “the non-religious social services that they provide.” [vi]

 
It can be hard to distinguish between a church-run shelter and a government program. In terms of legal status for tax and injury liability purposes, a church shelter might be an accessory use[vii] of a church or an entirely separate non-profit organization,[viii] but neither of those status categories necessarily conveys whether the shelter is able to involve participants in religious activities.

Churches that shelter the homeless tend to do so because their religious doctrine somehow obligates or inspires them to provide helpful services to the poor. So the motivation for the church’s shelter is almost always religious. However, there are ways, at least in large cities, for churches to contract with state or city agencies so that those agencies pay the staff salaries or other costs associated with operating the shelter.

The circumstances surrounding those contracts establish either the private religious or public/governmental identity of a particular church shelter. In other words, the shelter program’s stated mission, its funding sources, and its related legal obligations determine whether religion can be a component of its programming.

The local and state laws at the foundations of these contracts typically delineate which particular funding relationships make the shelter service a government activity. A good example comes from the case of Greentree v. Good Shepherd which explains that the church’s shelter was exempt from filing an environmental impact statement prior to opening because it was not a new facility of the church. Instead, the shelter was part of an ongoing program of the City’s Housing Resources Administration, authorized by local ordinance. [ix]


[i] The word “church” is being used generically here to refer to any house of worship, be it a synagogue, mosque, temple, or other type of facility operated by a religious denomination and primarily in existence for religious worship services.

[ii] There are interesting zoning cases saying that operating a shelter or meal service for the poor is legally considered a church’s free exercise of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. See, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Hoboken, 479 A.2d 935 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1983); Western Presbyterian Church v. Board of Zoning Adjustment, 849 F.Supp. 77 (D.D.C. 1994), mot. den., sum. j. granted, 862 F.Supp. 538 (D.D.C. 1994) dismissed, 1995 U.S. App. LEXIS 5085 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

[iii] Churches and other religious organizations exist as a distinct type of legal entity by way of the Internal Revenue Code’s definitions and treatment of various types of non-profit organizations. See, 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3) (2006). To get status as a religious organization under that code, they have to be “organized and operated exclusively for religious…purposes.”  See the IRS’s resources for religious organizations.

[iv] A good description of how a local government contracted with a church to operate a shelter is written in the case of Greentree at Murray Hill Condo. v. Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, 550 N.Y.S.2d 981, 983-84 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1989). Basically, if the church is merely renting space to a government shelter program, that use of church space is not, in itself, a violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state provisions anymore than using churches as polling places for elections would be a violation. An example of when this kind of rental might occur is during a severe weather emergency when people cannot stay in their homes. Sometimes, there are government facilitated activities that temporarily need access to a big space in a certain neighborhood.

[v] U.S. Const. amend. I. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

[vi] Department of Justice archived material about Faith-Based Community Initiatives and Partnering with the Federal Government is available at http://www.justice.gov/archive/fbci/index.html.  Note that the Faith Based Initiatives program has now closed.  It is cited here only for description.

[vii] William W. Bassett, Religious Organizations and the Law §10:16 (2006).

[viii] Id. At §9:76.

[ix] Greentree, 550 N.Y.S.2d at 987-88.