We hold these truths . . . self-evident . . . created equal . . . certain unalienable rights . . . life, liberty . . .
By Sandy Rozek . . . We all know the words. We take them for granted. Yes, we know — some are rich, some poor; some are smart, some not so much; some sail through life as though on wings while others, feet mired in the mud, struggle to make it from one day to the next.
But still. We all have those certain unalienable rights, and chief among them is the right to life.
At times, holding on to that right seems impossible. When one is homeless, living on the street, sleeping in a doorway or on a park bench or, if lucky, in a car, that right to life is scratched and clawed from a society that, too often, just doesn’t care. And when the temperature drops to freezing and snow covers the park bench, when the doorway is iced over and every breath pierces the lungs with needles, that small, small element of society that still cares enough to open and maintain emergency, cold weather shelters is the only buffer between keeping life or losing it.
And even there that basic right to life is not so unalienable after all.
“No one is turned away,” said the soft-spoken voice at the community shelter in a small Oregon city in response to my question about those on sexual offense registries being accepted. After explaining that no ID is required, the man said that they believed that saving lives was more important than the past history of those who came to them in need.
Approximately 2,500 miles away, in an almost straight line all the way across the top of the map, another voice in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, gave the exact opposite answer. “No one on the Megan’s Law Registry will be admitted,” he said. No one. He was speaking of the United Way shelters in their county. When asked for alternate shelters where registrants would be accepted, he named one but wasn’t sure what county it was in.
In general, these extremes are valid examples for the rest of the country. East coast and middle east states tend to have policies for their cold weather emergency shelters that exclude those on the registry. Random shelters in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, and Illinois report screening individuals against the sexual offense registry before they are allowed in, and, with no discernible exceptions, rejecting those who are registered citizens. Some say they try to find them a place to go, but their low success rate can be heard in their voices.
Many, probably most, of Ohio’s shelters maintain the policy of not accepting registrants but in actual temporary, emergency situations, will make exceptions. A spokesperson for one that does not, when asked, said, “I do not know what they did during the time of the sub-zero temperatures.”
In general, shelters that are managed through the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and the United Way, appear to exclude everyone who is registered although there are exceptions.
All of Denver, Colorado’s four major shelters take registered individuals, even the one that is a Salvation Army shelter.
Moving further west, random shelters in Wyoming and Idaho report not having a blanket policy that excludes registrants but rather one that looks at each individual’s situation.
As far as meeting emergency weather needs, the west coast stands out as the most accepting of registrants. In addition to the example from Oregon above, the website of another Oregon county’s program states, “Severe weather shelters do not require identification or any other documentation. No one seeking shelter during severe weather will be turned away.”
A spokesperson for a shelter in Washington State also reported that no background checks were done and that everyone needing help was welcomed and admitted on an equal basis.
Random shelters in California report that they also do not do background checks or require identification before admitting those in need during weather emergencies. Exceptions exist, however, as noted in this blog post from several years ago about a shelter in California that rejected registrants with no exceptions.
It appears that these more accepting states have emergency services and shelters established by the county governments or, in some cases, by totally independent organizations and do not operate through the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, or the United Way. From all appearances, that makes a difference.
If this discrimination were done on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender or sexual preference, religious preference or lack of, political persuasion, handicap or deformity, or any of the myriad other characteristics that set us apart from each other, all it would take would be a phone call to the local newspaper to have the place swarming with media and civil rights advocates and specialized lobby groups, and the shelter and the churches and everyone involved would be knocking each other down to get to the microphone to apologize.
But registrants? Those whose names are on a public sex offender registry?
In today’s world, to too many people, “unalienable rights” are not for them.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.