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I was in a restaurant in New Jersey (USA) recently and witnessed the owners telling a (possibly) homeless person that he couldn't come inside because he smelled too bad. Is this legal?

More generally, are restaurants and other stores allowed to refuse entry to people for "looking homeless"? I often wonder about this in NYC, where I can imagine store owners wanting to create a "high-class" atmosphere in their store, but at the same time facing possible discrimination laws (and of course ethical issues).

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    There may be a totally different aspect in this as well: a restaurant is subject to particular rules wrt. hygiene. Which may mean that they have to refuse someone who is dirty in a way that could indicate a health risk to other customers. (Over here in Europe, at the same time they may be required to help that person to get medical treatment: depending on the situation, tell them to go to a doctor, call an ambulance, give first aid). That would be far below the level of creating high-class atmosphere, though. – cbeleites supports Monica Oct 14 at 10:48
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    It would be interesting to see what would happen if a rich business tycoon comes into a restaurant, but only after swimming in the sewer so he stinks to high heaven. E.g. is this discrimination against homeless people? Or against smelly people? (Granted there is generally a high statistical overlap between these groups. We need a control group to test this theory.) – Darrel Hoffman Oct 14 at 15:21
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    @DarrelHoffman #1 How do you know if that sewer-stink person is really a rich business tycoon? #2 Even if you do know it's actually a rich business tycoon, the restaurant is serving other rich business tycoons, and (to paraphrase Spock) the smells of the one offends the senses of the many. – RonJohn Oct 15 at 1:32
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    @RonJohn That was basically my point. There is a story I've heard (possibly apocryphal) about a rich guy who dressed up like a bum and tried to buy a Porsche from a dealership. After being very poorly treated, he made some phone calls and purchased the entire dealership, and then fired everybody on the spot. – Darrel Hoffman Oct 15 at 13:27
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    Shouldn't this question be re-phrased to "Are smelly people a protected class?" I would imagine that a wealthy person wreaking of sweat and feces would equally be denied entry. – MonkeyZeus Oct 15 at 14:00
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Anti-discrimination laws apply to certain protected classes only. Homelessness (real or assumed) is not one of them, so it is perfectly legal to bar such people from your premises. It is also perfectly legal to bar people with red hair (assuming this is not indirect discrimination against certain racial groups). Nobody is required to serve everybody who comes in; what you are not allowed to do is ban women, homosexuals or other groups set out in the applicable statutes.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – feetwet Oct 14 at 21:35
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    This answer makes several good points, but 1) it fails to reflect that homelessness is a protected class in some jurisdictions, and 2) "smelling too bad", "real homelessness" and "assumed homelessness" are three different categories, no need to mess this up more than the question did. (In my jurisdiction, I'm not allowed on the public transport if I "smell too bad"; in contrast, assumed homelessness would be loosely speaking a protected category in the context, not per local anti-discrimination laws but by general legal protection of personal dignity and by contractual law (prepaid service)). – Jirka Hanika Oct 15 at 15:37
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Homelessness is a protected class in some jurisdictions.

Rhode Island and Illinois, for instance, have each adopted a "Homeless Bill of Rights" establishing the following guarantees:

(1) the ability to use and move freely in public spaces, including public sidewalks, parks, transportation, and buildings, among other spaces;

(2) equal treatment by state and municipal government agencies;

(3) freedom from discrimination while maintaining employment;

(4) emergency medical care;

(5) ability to vote, register to vote, and receive documentation necessary for voting;

(6) protection from disclosure of his or her personal records and confidential information; and

(7) a reasonable expectation of privacy over personal property to the same extent as one would have in a permanent residence.

Connecticut and Puerto Rico also provide some level of protection for the homeless. To the best of my knowledge, no such protections are in place in either New Jersey or New York City.

Exactly how far these laws go in protecting a homeless person's right to enter a store or restaurant will vary by jurisdiction.

For more about this topic, see the Yale Law Journal article, "Ban the Address: Combating Employment Discrimination Against the Homeless."

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    How does the Illinois act bear on the question answered? State agencies, public spaces, etc. – versus service by private business? – user6726 Oct 14 at 4:25
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    Item #1 sounds like it may be meant to target what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 calls "public accommodations," i.e., hotels, restaurants, theaters, etc. I don't have enough experience with it to say how broadly courts construe that provision. – bdb484 Oct 14 at 7:03
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    @bdb484 That's quite contested, sadly. In Europe, this misinterpretation has been used to push a ban on smoking in pubs, for example, claiming that pubs are "public spaces", rather than privately owned businesses. It's clear it's supposed to only mean things that aren't privately owned (note the "public sidewalks", rather than just saying "sidewalks" - it would be unnecessary if you assumed all sidewalks are public, regardless of ownership, access etc.). – Luaan Oct 14 at 9:25
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    Public transportation over here (Europe) is often privately owned and operated but public via contract between e.g. town and bus company. Then they are allowed to refuse passengers only on the basis of an important reason (wrt. the question, being very dirty is a valid reason for a taxi driver to refuse a passenger). – cbeleites supports Monica Oct 14 at 10:37
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    @Luaan IDK about the rest of Europe, but at least in Poland there's a distinction between privately/publicly owned and privately/publicly accessible. For example a privately owned but publicly accessible (random people may enter it) store can't throw out customers for taking photos of price tags but a privately owned and privately accessible club (only members can enter it) could. – user31389 Oct 14 at 14:11
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Was the individual prevented from entering because he was homeless or because he smelled bad? It seems that conclusions about the individual's living arrangements may not be the most relevant factor in this situation. From the description of the situation, it appears that the restaurant employees were concerned about an offensive odor, which is not a protected class in the US.

  • I can be denied entry, by law, for not wearing shoes or a shirt. I can be denied entry into restaurants for not having a sport coat. – paulj Oct 15 at 18:33

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