The state legislature recently moved forward in efforts to legally protect the homeless from discrimination in Massachusetts.
On Dec. 15, an act providing for a homeless bill of rights in Massachusetts was voted unanimously out of housing committee and referred to the Committee on House Ways and Means.
The rights laid out in the bill are the right to move freely in public spaces, the right to equal treatment by state and municipal agencies, the right not to face discrimination with regard to employment, the right to emergency medical care, the right to privacy of records and the right to privacy in personal property just like a person’s right to privacy in a permanent residence.
Massachusetts House Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli is the lead sponsor of the act, and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless are one of its greatest supporters.
Creating this bill of rights would serve as a first step to guide government agencies to promote the rights of those experiencing homelessness.
“We know that the way that this legislation is drafted, it’s more of a statement of intent,” said Kelly Turley, director of legislative advocacy for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
The rights in Bill 1129 apply to all Massachusetts residents but make clear that homeless people also deserve those rights, which have been infringed upon, according to a series of testimonies gathered by the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
“Storeowners harass me because I get food stamps, and not a lot of them like taking food
stamps,” said Julia Saxon, providing testimony. “The police harass us. So does everyone who thinks they’re better than we are. When we try to hang out in a public place, the police come and tell us that we have to leave, that we can’t hang out there. I’ve tried to hang out in parks or sit down in a restaurant, but they tell us to leave. I even tried taking a cab one day, and the driver said, ‘We don’t usually drive homeless people, so I need to see the money first.’”
Another man, Michael Kelley, described needing to dress in business casual while he was living on the streets so as to not face discrimination. He witnessed discrimination in a medical office where a homeless health care center was located.
“The security guards would throw them out unless they had a medical appointment, but if you want health care, you need to go to that office. I saw a security guard throw a guy up against a wall and say, ‘Get the [expletive] out of here, you homeless [expletive]!’ even though he had a legitimate reason to be there,” said Kelley while providing testimony.
At first glance, Pignatelli seems like an unlikely champion for this cause. He admits that in the “beautiful Berkshires,” the picture of a person without a home may look a little different. However, it only took one of his constituents coming to him to tell his story to inspire Pignatelli.
“We need to treat them with the same respect that those of us who go home at night and sleep in a warm bed receive,” said Pignatelli.
According to Turley, housing insecurity and homelessness are at crisis levels in Massachuetts, but this is also a national issue.
“We were inspired by … legislation that was passed back in 2012 in Rhode Island that made a statement that no matter what your housing situation is, that you should have basic rights protected,” said Turley.
Since Rhode Island passed that act, Connecticut and Illinois have also passed similar bills, and there are versions of the act in various states across the country. In California a more expansive bill had begun to move toward legislature, but it was derailed because of the cost.
“It’s very difficult to get legislation passed in Massachusetts; many thousands of bills are filed and very few make it out the other end during a two-year legislative cycle,” said Turley. “We are hopeful given that this is an area, homelessness, that the legislature and the administration do care about, especially because this particular bill does not come with a big price tag.”
Pignatelli expressed a similar statement, adding that he is in communication with the speaker of the house and is hopeful that they can pass this act before the legislative break for the summer. Until then, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and Pignatelli will continue to fight for the act.
“This legislation is not focused on giving people without homes special rights. We’re really trying to elevate that we all have equal rights, and we know that they’re often violated,” said Turley.