BOSTON, Mass.—A Bill of Rights for the Homeless might seem like the kind of law Mark Alston-Follansbee, executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition, would be excited about, but it isn’t. Follansbee worries that the bill, which would echo four others passed by states since 2012, will assuage concerns about the homeless population without creating real change.
The bill reiterates rights for the homeless such as freedom to move about in public spaces, to search for jobs and housing without being discriminated against, to receive emergency medical care and to vote and expect reasonable privacy, even when living in a shelter. It would affect nearly 20,000 Massachusetts residents lacking permanent housing in Jan. 2013—a number which the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless (MCH) says is increasing.
Despite the growing problem, Robyn Frost, MCH’s executive director, expressed reservations similar to Follansbee’s. “We need to get people off the streets and into housing,” she said. “I’m not willing to give up the battle that we can’t put this word, ‘homeless,’ in the history books where it belongs. But I sometimes feel like that bill of rights is surrendering to it.”
“Don’t we all, as individuals, have rights already?” Follansbee asked. “Why do you want a special bill for homeless people?”
Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, helped construct and advocate for the original Homeless Bill of Rights. He acknowledged some of the rights were already legally sound but said the work he put into the bill was still worth it.
“If it’s duplicative, fine, it’s a duplicate. But why should that be a reason not to pass it?” he asked. “Some of these rights exist. What this law does, though, is make it crystal clear that discriminating against someone solely because of their homeless status is against the law in these different areas and doesn’t leave it up to a legal interpretation in the courts.”
In the last two years, bills of rights for the homeless have already been passed in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois, where their effectiveness can be studied. California has also enacted a homeless bill of rights separate from the others.
Ryczek said he does not know of anyone who has filed a lawsuit based on the Bill of Rights yet, although he expressed hope that a test case will arise soon. Although no one has put the bill to the test in a court, Ryczek said the Bill of Rights has had a significant impact in Rhode Island. “It has been a community education process about the state of homelessness and why people are in the position they’re in,” he explained.
“I think it’s a very myopic view to just look at the Homeless Bill of Rights in a blinder context,” Ryczek said. “It is a law that helps protect people in this housing position. But it also can be a community education tool to go far beyond talking about just people’s civil rights being violated, but more about homelessness and why public policy should be changing.”
John Tassoni, a former Rhode Island senator and lead author of the Rhode Island bill, said that although he is deeply proud of the bill, it’s only a first step. “It doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “The state has to step up to the plate. If they really want to get rid of the homeless problem in Rhode Island, they need to put money into the system.”
The Bill of Rights did not garner any increased financial support for the homeless when it passed in 2012, but Ryczek said 2013 brought an increase in funding for affordable housing programs in R.I. “I think last year’s success, funding for rental vouchers, was built upon the success of the Homeless Bill of Rights the previous year,” he said, “and that’s kind of our strategy. We want to keep building a message and subsequent campaigns to get to the end goal.”
Although reticent, Frost also said she recognized the educational nature of the Homeless Bill of Rights. “More and more states have filed for this type of bill of rights because it’s so desperate for people without housing to be recognized as somebody other than someone who’s a vagrant or someone who’s on drugs or has mental health issues,” she said.
Ryczek said the bill was one small piece of a much larger effort to combat chronic homelessness. “No one finds themselves homeless because of a simple situation,” he said.
Ryczek said that he expects that the Homeless Bill of Rights will have a finite life. “One of our messages when we were passing this law was, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to someday repeal this bill when it’s no longer needed?’”