With the formal session of Congress coming to a close, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless is pushing for the passage of two pieces of legislation that promise to promote dignity and opportunity for those experiencing homelessness and poverty: House Bills 529 and 1129. The legislation, which aims to improve the state’s Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children program (EAEDC) and create a bill of rights for those experiencing homelessness, is awaiting action by the House Committee on Ways and Means.
The coalition sponsored State House Call-in Days on July 17 and 18, urging citizens to call House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey to ask them to take action to pass the bills. A State House briefing on the legislature was held just days earlier, hosted by the lead sponsors of Bill 529 and Bill 1129, State Rep. Jim O’Day (D-West Boylston), Rep. William Smitty Pignatelli (D-Lenox) and Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville).
The briefing featured the testimony of EAEDC participant Cochise W., who spoke in support of the passage of Bill 529. The transcript of Cochise’s testimony was featured on the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless website.
“As a former nurse, I loved my job and worked hard for 38 years and was earning $75 per hour,” Cochise said. “However, in July 2013, I finally had to stop when sciatica, arthritis and degenerative disk disease took its toll on my body. I lived off my savings and then applied for SSI/SSDI and have been receiving EAEDC benefits since 2014. Eventually, the $304 per month from EAEDC was insufficient to help pay my rent, even while I lived with other members of my family in a market rent apartment. So, I was forced to move out because I was not able to contribute financially. People become homeless for a reason—it’s not because they are lazy.”
Bill 529 promises to increase the average EAEDC grant from $304 to $428 per month, remove the 70 percent benefit reduction for individuals experiencing homelessness, increase the allowable personal asset limit from $250 to $2,500 and create an annual cost of living so that participants don’t slip back into homelessness.
Kelly Turley, the director of legislative advocacy at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said Bill 529 could cost $35 to $40 million.
“We know that this bill is going to be difficult to pass,” Turley said. “We’ve had some initial conversations to see if there would be a way to redraft the bill to move forward sections of the bill during this session.”
Turley said the legislature should take action on Bill 529 because the state receives reimbursements from the federal government for the time it takes individuals on the EAEDC program to convert to the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
“Last year, the state got $9.5 million back from the federal government. This year they expect to get a little over $8.5 million back,” Turley said. “We have been, as a part of this bill, looking to reinvest that money into the program itself so the cost of making those changes could be offset by money that is coming back to Massachusetts specifically for the people who converted from this program.”
Massachusetts State Rep. William Smitty Pignatelli is the lead sponsor for House Bill 1129, which seeks to establish a homeless bill of rights.
“Homelessness is a problem here in Massachusetts, and it’s even a problem out in the rural parts of Massachusetts,” Pignatelli said. “It’s there, it’s evident and we should be treating these folks who don’t necessarily have a physical address with the same rights and dignity as anyone else, as human beings and American citizens. It’s going to show legislative intent that these people should be treated fairly and equitably.”
Bill 1129 seeks to protect the key rights of all residents regardless of their housing status. The rights listed on the bill include the right to move freely in public spaces, the right to equal treatment by municipal agencies, the right to register to vote, the right to emergency medical care, the right to privacy of property and freedom from discrimination in employment.
“We are in a mad scramble to get things done by July 31 because it’s an election year,” Pignatelli said. “But this is something that is not expensive and shows shows strong legislative intent. I would see no reason why it could not be passed, since there is no money involved.”
Turley said similar legislation was enacted in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois, where water- and tear-resistant cards were distributed to the homeless population with the information of who to contact if their rights had been violated.
“The homeless population is not a protected class,” Turley said. “When you are homeless, it’s hard enough to get through each day without facing the additional challenge of discrimination by police members or potential employers.”
Turley said she believes the call-in days and the legislative briefing helped to elevate the importance of the two bills, and if the legislation is not passed by the end of the formal session on Sunday, there is a strong possibility the bills could be taken up in an informal session.
“The last two-year legislative cycle we were able to get our unaccompanied youth homelessness bill passed during an informal session,” Turley said. “We are definitely not giving up on this legislation and will be looking to regroup and refile the bills if necessary next session. There is still time, although very limited, in this session and we are going to keep working to get as many people as possible reaching out to legislative leaders in support of these bills.”