This summer, Rhode Island became the first state to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights. The bill reasserts basic rights for the homeless, including the right to be in public spaces, the right to equal treatment by all state and city agencies, the right not to face discrimination in applying for or keeping employment, the right to emergency medical care, the right to vote and the right to privacy.
“I hope to move this piece of legislation through the country,” said state Sen. John Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield and North Smithfield, the lead author on the bill.
“(The bill) comes from the people who are experiencing homelessness and (from) my experience being homeless for three years,” said John Joyce, co-director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project who wrote the bill in fall 2011 with fellow director Megan Smith ’10. Joyce said his aim is for the Ocean State to be the first in the nation to end chronic homelessness.
“I think it’s a big step forward for the people who are homeless,” Tassoni said. “I think a lot of the stigma they have is untrue. This bill moving forward is a big step for the whole country.”
“At the end of the day it’s about the strengthening of the law to make sure that the homeless have just as many rights and privileges as everyone else and that those rights and privileges are equally protected,” said state Rep. Chris Blazejewski, D-Providence and East Providence, who co-sponsored the bill.
The bill easily passed its first test in the state Senate, which “really championed the issue as a body,” said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. But some members of the House were concerned about aspects of the bill. One change made by the House broadened the rights of homeless individuals against discrimination. The original bill protected the homeless from discrimination from “law enforcement” – a stipulation that police opposed, Ryczek said. “We’re not saying that all police violate homeless people’s rights,” Ryczek said. But eventually “law enforcement” was replaced by the broader term “municipal officials.”
In light of recent legislation that has restricted the rights of homeless individuals, some advocates have become increasingly concerned about the criminalization of homelessness. From sleeping outside to eating in public, many communities are “essentially making it illegal to be homeless,” said Andy Beres, development and communications coordinator at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Criminalization of homelessness has been proliferating at an alarming rate, Beres said. The bill is “especially important at a time when communities across the country are responding to homelessness by criminalizing life-sustaining behaviors,” he said.
But many homeless advocates have expressed interest in bringing the bill’s model into their communities, Beres said, mentioning colleagues in Oregon who have already taken steps towards passing a similar bill. Other states, like California and New York, may also be looking to follow Rhode Island’s lead, Tassoni said.
Tassoni spoke to the moral and economic reasons for addressing homelessness. “They’re human beings. They’re not animals, they’re human beings,” he said. In the long run, ending homelessness will benefit the economy, he added.
Brown’s student-run program, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, was “very, very instrumental on having the bill passed,” said Karen Jeffreys, associate director at the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. HOPE gathered over 600 signed letters advocating legislation including the Homeless Bill of Rights, discussed homelessness solutions with House Speaker Gordon Fox, D-Providence, and has advocated for a weekly soup kitchen inside the capitol during the spring.
Benjamin Eichert ’13, a member of HOPE, outlined a variety of time-dependent solutions to homelessness. The immediate goal is shelter, he said. Longer-term strategies include rapid re-housing, with the ultimate goal of providing affordable housing to those in need, he said.
But before these goals are met, advocates are seeking to provide dignity to the homeless. “Discrimination isn’t always visible,” Eichert said.
But some question whether a Homeless Bill of Rights is the best solution. The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless works to help its citizens obtain stable and affordable housing, rather than spending time on in-between solutions, said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications and development director of the organization. The organization works “to end homelessness, period,” she said. With this approach, there is no need for a bill, she said. “We believe it’s possible for everybody to have a place to call home.”
Tassoni pointed out that the homeless face unique challenges that make special legislation needed. For example, homeless individuals have been denied jobs because they listed Harrington Hall, a homeless shelter in Rhode Island, as their address in job applications, he said.
The National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty will recognize Tassoni’s efforts to use legislation to change lives with the Bruce F. Vento Award in November. The foundation also has tapped him to work with its board of directors to pass bills similar to the Homeless Bill of Rights across the country, Tassoni said.
From the Homeless Bill of Rights:
“At the present time, many persons have been rendered homeless as a result of economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe, affordable housing and a shrinking social safety net.”
“All free governments are instituted for the protection, safety and happiness of the people. All laws, therefore, should be made for the good of the whole; and the burdens of the state ought to be fairly distributed among its citizens. No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied equal protection of the laws.”
“No person’s rights, privileges or access to public services may be be denied or abridged solely because he
or she is homeless. Such a person shall be granted the same rights and privileges as any other resident of this state.”
A person experiencing homelessness:
“Has the right to use and move freely in public spaces, including, but not limited to, public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person, and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.”
“Has the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status.”
“Has the right not to face discrimination while seeking or maintaining employment due to his or her lack of permanent mailing address, or his or her mailing address being that of a shelter or social service provider.”
“Has the right to emergency medical care free from discrimination based on his or her housing status.”