Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights: Is Massachusetts Next?

Spare Change News

Rhode Island became the first state to adopt a homeless bill of rights after Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law Thursday, June 21st.

The bill of rights, sponsored by Senator John J. Tassoni, Jr., establishes a right of privacy for homeless individuals and protects them from discrimination when applying for employment and housing, while also preventing them from being held criminally liable for sleeping in public spaces when they don’t have access to a shelter.

“[What] the bill entails is that any person that is homeless should not be discriminated against, whether it be for a job, whether it be for housing, whether it be for car insurance, anything like that,” Tassoni said. “The bottom line is they shouldn’t be discriminated against.”

Along with Senator Tassoni, the bill was put together by John Joyce and Megan Smith, Co-Directors of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, who used information they had received from people living on the streets of Rhode Island while drafting the bill.

“I am an outreach worker, so it’s basically what we hear on the streets every day, plus what I experienced. I was homeless myself for three years,” said Joyce, “so I know what the discrimination was all about.”

Senator Tassoni also said that his motivation to propose the bill was inspired by his experience working with Harrington Hall, a homeless shelter in Rhode Island, and by the increase in Rhode Island’s homeless population in recent years due to the economic downturn.

“I think it’s important because our numbers are through the roof,” Tassoni said. “Many people who list shelters like Harrington Hall as their place of residence on job and housing applications get turned down based solely on their housing status.

“I think a lot of it has to do with housing and job applications, because you put Harrington Hall in, everyone knows where Harrington Hall is,” Tassoni said. “People know it’s a homeless shelter, so right away they say ‘oh we can’t hire you because you’re in a homeless shelter.’ They don’t tell them that, but obviously that’s what’s happening.”

Along with protecting homeless individuals from being discriminated against when applying for a job or housing, the bill also establishes a right to privacy, which prevents homeless shelters and service providers from disclosing information about their clients, even to law enforcement agencies.

“What constituents shared with us is that law enforcement agencies will call and say ‘We want to know where John Smith is, is he staying in your shelter?’” said Jim Ryczek, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. “And, there’s confidentiality with regard to nonprofits so the nonprofit shouldn’t be allowed to tell the law enforcement agency that that person is in there.”

“So it basically maintains standard confidentiality practices. People with mental health issues, HIV status, substance abuse treatment, they all enjoy those provisions in law, and homeless people wanted the same protections,” Ryczek said.

While the bill is the first of its kind to be passed into law, the National Coalition for the Homeless said it would support similar bills in other states, as well as a federal bill that would protect and preserve the rights of homeless individuals.

“I think the idea of a homeless bill of rights is something that we would support nationally at the state level,” said Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “I do think that the national problem of homelessness needs local solutions and local drafting of legislation.”

“It really recognizes for the first time a community’s recognition that the un-housed deserve specific and special attention, specifically the protection of their rights, and protections over the uniqueness of being homeless,” Donovan said. “So I believe it’s important, it’s significant, and hopefully trend-setting.”

While many homeless advocates in Massachusetts weren’t familiar with the specific language in the Rhode Island bill, Robyn Frost, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless said homeless individuals have been discriminated against for many years.

“I think that people without a permanent address of their own have been discriminated against in many realms, in many ways for the last 20-plus years that this epidemic has continued to have been allowed to grow,” Frost said.

Joe Finn, President and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said he likes certain aspects of the Rhode Island bill.

“Having the opportunity to [have] reviewed that specific piece of legislation, what I like about it is that it’s very specific and it targets, again, a lot of the practices that are very selective, particularly in terms of targeting homeless persons,” Finn said. “So from that perspective, I think it’s a decent piece of legislation.”

However, advocates such as Finn and Mark Alston-Follansbee, Executive Director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition, said they were cautious about laws that establish a permanent class for the homeless.

“Personally I think I would be much more in favor of things like the United Nations has, you know, a bill of rights for all human beings,” Alston-Follansbee said. “That everybody is entitled to food and shelter, and everybody is entitled to live without fear of violence and everybody is entitled to live without being abused or neglected, you know, that these are basic human rights that we all ought to be fighting for.”

ADAM SENNOTT is a former editor of Spare Change News.

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