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Postal Service continues discrimination against homeless people

By Anitra Freeman

In 1998, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon declared "all Americans are entitled to a free form of mail service." It is one of the things we take most for granted: check your mailbox once a day, throw away the advertising circulars, hide the bills, and read what's left.

But most homeless men and women in Washington State have had only 30 days of limited-hour general delivery service at one post office in each city or town. This makes checking your mail an entirely different experience.

Imagine an example: When you first became homeless, you stayed at a shelter downtown. You rented a General Delivery mailbox at the downtown Post Office, your neighborhood. It was difficult to pick up your mail while working day labor, but you managed: some days you knew by noon that you weren't going to get work that day. After three weeks of this you land a permanent job. Now you can start saving for an apartment. You can also wait until you get an apartment to get any mail again, because your job is in the North End, you're staying in a shelter close to there, and there's no way to get across town to pick up your mail in the hours that the post office is open. Your box will be closed in another week, anyway.

SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) and three homeless postal customers have filed a lawsuit asking that the post office treat them as they treat other people: that they be allowed to get their mail without traveling great distances or spending money which could be used on food, healthcare or shelter.

Two of the issues in the case should have been resolved six years ago. In 1994, the Postal Service issued a bulletin stating that homeless people are eligible for a post office box if they can provide a piece of I.D., a way to be reached, or proof that the postmaster knows them. The bulletin also declared that homeless people are entitled to general delivery service indefinitely, not for just 30 days. But this bulletin was never incorporated into the Domestic Mail Manual, which clerks use to determine the rules. The Postal Service has still not updated the manual since this error was brought to its attention one year ago. So post offices in Washington continue to deny homeless customers post office boxes, and continue to cut them off general delivery after 30 days, even when the customer is willing to pay.

Even within those 30 days, there are added barriers to getting your mail. The Postal Service seems to believe that providing general delivery at one location in Seattle, the Third and Union office downtown, is adequate. Some homeless individuals live downtown; many do not. Some live in shelters miles away from the business core. Some live in Tent City. The Postal Service believes it is reasonable to make people travel downtown for general delivery which can only be picked up during a few hours each day. We believe it is only reasonable to expect this simple service at neighborhood post offices. Homeless people could then stop having to choose between spending money on the bus or on services, or between picking up mail or going to work.

Finally, in what may be the most blatant discrimination against homeless people, the Postal Service refuses to provide them with the no-fee post office boxes which it grants to anyone who can't be reached by a postal carrier. Can anyone seriously maintain that homeless people are eligible for carrier delivery? Do mail carriers bring letters to people sleeping under bridges, in parks, or in doorways? I want to see this.

The Postal Service should not deny a service to homeless individuals that is available to anyone else, for no other reason than that they don't have a home. This type of discrimination is unconstitutional, and in violation of a federal law that prohibits the Postal Service from discriminating against its customers.

Since people who don't have homes also usually don't have any other means of communication that housed people take for granted -- such as personal telephones, answering machines, email, fax, or the family car in which you can toodle off to Grandma's house -- the Postal Service is an even bigger player in their daily lives. Mail service is essential for a homeless man struggling to keep in touch with a caseworker in order to maintain his veteran's benefits, disability benefits, or food stamps. Mail can help a homeless youth who is trying to rebuild communication with his or her family. Mail can make the difference between health and sickness for a homeless woman who needs to communicate with a doctor. Mail can be the difference between freedom to rebuild your life or a return to prison for a homeless person who needs to stay in contact with a lawyer or probation officer. Mail is an asset in the civic life of anyone wishing to receive publications or notices of public meetings.

For too long, the Postal Service has shifted its responsibility to shelters and drop-in centers, which sometimes receive mail on homeless people's behalf. During time that they are needed to serve food, do counseling and referrals, wash blankets -- and all the other chores in the shelter -- staff and volunteers have to instead do the jobs that postal workers are paid to do.

This is about equal treatment in the eyes of a federal agency, folks. It's time the Postal Service stopped ignoring its duty.

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