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The postal service has always had a way for people without addresses to get their mail. The same system that existed for pioneers in remote homesteads and mining camps that didn’t have street addresses is still in place today: general delivery. General delivery means that the post office will hold onto mail for someone to pick-up when it has been addressed to that person in care of the post office, rather than to the person at a street address.
The law describing the extent and limits of general delivery service is in Section 6.0 of the Domestic Mail Manual which says “general delivery is intended primarily as a temporary means of delivery…for transients and customers not permanently located.”[i] The terms of that section go on to state that general delivery is “available at only one facility under the administration of a multi-facility post office” (i.e. the main post office in town or in the county) and that the general delivery mail will only be held for thirty days.
Clearly, general delivery’s limits on timing and location can make it very difficult for homeless people to collect their mail.
There was an effort by several homeless men in Seattle to get general delivery extended to more convenient branch post offices or to at least obtain post office boxes, but the court determined that their First Amendment right to mail service was satisfied by the one site general delivery rule.[ii] The men’s complaint about not getting post office boxes arose from two rules in the Domestic Mail Manual. One requires that all applicants for P.O. boxes provide a street address in the application for a box.[iii] Since the homeless do not have street addresses, the rule seemed to prevent them from being able to get post office boxes even for a fee.
The Postal Service has an address exception for the homeless though. The exception allows the homeless to show signed photo identification; prove a connection to some social service office, employer or shelter; or be known to a postal clerk or the postmaster.[iv] The Postal Service’s administrative court, which first heard this case, concluded that the men who had signed photo ID’s issued by the homeless shelter had identified themselves well enough to get post office boxes.[v] The federal appeals court upheld that decision by the Administrative Law Judge.[vi]
The second P.O. box rule in this case was about payment for P.O. boxes. The homeless men believed that they should be entitled to free post office box service because their circumstances satisfied the criteria listed in the Free Box Service rule: physical location within the geographic boundaries administered by the post office, location had potential to get delivery service, post office chose not to provide delivery service, and customer didn’t get delivery service.[vii]
The Administrative Law Judge, and later the federal appeals court, held that the free box rule was really meant for people and businesses with fixed locations where the post office simply could not provide delivery services; it was not for transients and people who congregate in places that do not even have fixed addresses.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) submitted a friend of the court brief to the federal appeals court in this case to assert that the Postal Service had a legal obligation to provide all communities with mail service, despite government cost and convenience worries, particularly the homeless population which has such limited access to communication systems and which depends on the mail service to deliver the government’s own unemployment, workers compensation, welfare, disability, and medical assistance checks to them. The heart of their brief was the message that homeless people miss-out on all kinds of basic necessities and dignities largely because they lack addresses and that the Postal Service, by simply allowing free post office boxes or general delivery at their branches, could fix that problem.
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