A good house is hard to find—which is why a homeless mother of three seeking to leave a homeless shelter was thrilled to find an apartment within her price range close to an elementary school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Her hopes were dashed, however, when the landlord denied her application because she would be renting with a Berkshire Housing Authority voucher.
With the help of Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for those experiencing housing discrimination, the family won a case against the landlord and was awarded damages.
It was too late. The apartment had been rented to someone else.
This story—reported by MassLive in November 2018—and others like it form the basis for proposed legislation to create a “Homeless Bill of Rights” in Massachusetts.
“An Act Providing a Bill of Rights for People Experiencing Homelessness,” or Bill H.1314, would enshrine in Massachusetts General Law that “No person’s rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because they are experiencing homelessness.”
“Having an address is something that I’ve always taken for granted,” said a man named Steve, who requested that his full name be withheld from this piece. Steve had only been homeless for three months but said he was already familiar with discrimination against his housing status. “Every single form you fill out anywhere from a credit card from a department store or anything else, the first thing they ask after your name is your address. And I don’t have one.”
Kelly Turley, the associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, confirmed that discrimination on the basis of housing status can affect every aspect of a person’s life.
“When people are experiencing homelessness and just trying to meet their basic needs, then they’re often discriminated against while being in public places, while seeking medical attention, when they’re trying to vote, when they’re trying to access resources and not have their confidentiality violated, etcetera,” Turley said.
Through her work at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, Turley has been involved in efforts to pass the Homeless Bill of Rights since it was first introduced by Rep. Pignatelli during the 2013-2014 legislative session. Although Turley said it received broad support at the time, Bill H.3595 (as it was then known) died in the House Committee of Ways and Means.
Rep. Pignatelli reintroduced the bill in 2015 as Bill H.1129 to the same effect, making the current version (Bill H.1314), the third iteration of this legislative effort.
“We think [the bill of rights] is very basic legislation … and Massachusetts sees itself—rightfully so in a lot of ways—as a leader on homelessness issues in the country, so it’s disappointing that it’s taken this long to pass legislation where other states have been able to affirm these rights in a more proactive way,” said Turley of the delay.
Nationally, the number of people experiencing homelessness has risen, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Based on yearly point-in-time counts conducted by local officials over the course of one night each January, the report found that over 550,000 people were experiencing homelessness in 2018, a 0.3 percent increase since 2017.
In Massachusetts, that number is much higher. According to the HUD report, the Commonwealth’s homeless population jumped 14 percentage points in 2018, the highest of any state in the country. State Senator Becca Rausch, another legislative sponsor of H.1314, attributed this in part to a lack of affordable housing options in the state.
“We need to create affordable housing. We need to create affordable health care. We need a whole bunch of things to start addressing all of that,” said Rausch, who began working on this issue as a way to address the disproportionate number of queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts.
More state legislatures are turning towards measures like the homeless bill of rights as a first step. Rhode Island became the first state in the country to implement such a policy in 2012. Illinois and Connecticut followed suit in 2013. Since then, seven other states including Massachusetts have introduced proposals modeled on Rhode Island’s precedent.
However, Megan Hustings, Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said not all of these efforts will lead to real change.
“With many of the state and city level bills that have passed, there have not been those enforcement mechanisms. It’s been more ceremonial and hasn’t led to enforceable civil rights,” Hustings said.
The lack of an enforcement mechanism is something that both Turley and Sen. Rausch acknowledged as a potential drawback to Bill H.1314. As a statement of legislative intent, the bill is limited in its intended impact.
“There’s no teeth to it … There’s nothing there other than a statement of intent, which, again, is very important,” said Sen. Rausch.
In an effort to address that concern, Sen. Rausch has introduced another policy proposal—Bill H.150—that she refers to as “The Act of Living.” Turley described H.150 as “harder hitting” than the Homeless Bill of Rights, saying, “while people are experiencing homelessness, [under The Act of Living] they would be a protected class under state anti-discrimination laws.”
Hustings said the National Coalition for the Homeless is more in favor of this type of actionable legislation.
“We would definitely encourage and support greater ability to enforce the bill of rights. The ceremonial one that reinforces rights but doesn’t protect them is nice I suppose, but the reason that advocates are introducing these bills is because people’s rights are not being protected,” she said.
At the same time, The Act of Living’s increased focus on enforcement has raised new concerns about the bill’s potential impact on homeless shelters. Specifically, the bill’s language protecting “a reasonable expectation of privacy in any personal property belonging to the person” is viewed as potentially threatening to shelter operations.
“There is a real concern about privacy … and, as a former practicing attorney who specialized in privacy among other things, I can see where they’re coming from,” said Sen. Rausch. “There’s something to be done there to improve the language so that the right is not watered down, but the reality of homeless shelters is also taken into account.”
Shelters are, understandably, limited in their ability to provide unadulterated privacy to their residents. For instance, in order to protect the safety of visitors and staff, St. Francis House, a day shelter in downtown Boston, requires guests to pass through a security checkpoint with a metal detector.
Sen. Rausch pointed out that “wet houses,” which cater to the homeless people who also struggle with alcohol dependency by allowing residents to consume alcohol on the premises while being monitored by staff, have even less flexibility when it comes to privacy.
“It would be very difficult for especially the wet shelters to comply with the law—either one—as written,” she said, adding that she is in conversation with advocates in the community about how to address the issue.
Turley said these concerns turned into one of the few instances of public opposition to the Bill of Rights during the 2015 to 2016 legislative session. In a public hearing on the bill, Turley said a representative of “the largest shelter in Boston” said, “and this is basically a quote: ‘The guests in their shelter might think they have more rights than they actually do,’ even though they actually do have those rights and [those rights] may not be being protected.”
Turley declined to name the shelter, but Pine Street Inn is the largest in Boston. A spokesperson for the shelter denied the claim that a representative made the statement described by Turley.
In an emailed response, Barbara Trevisan, Pine Street Inn’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, stated that “Pine Street in [sic] not opposed to the legislation, rather we have some concerns regarding a few sections … relative to the operational impact some bill provisions would have (i.e. right to privacy) on us (or any shelter for that matter). ” “As a low threshold shelter, and in an effort to keep everyone safe, we cannot ensure privacy: bags need to be searched, people sleep in an open dorm, locker room and showers are open as well. Pine Street Inn has met with some of the bill’s sponsors and we are working with legislators to change some of the language so that shelters can continue to operate as shelters.”
Whatever the specifics, Hustings stressed the urgency of addressing homelessness at the state level and beyond.
“Homelessness has not always been with us, but it’s been with us for the past thirty, forty years,” she said referring to the defunding of public housing that took place in the late ‘80s. “We see this across communities where there’s not the resources and there’s not the political will to resolve the situation, and people are demonized and dehumanized for an economic situation that we have helped create.”
“Everybody knows that it’s terrible to be homeless, and now I see how bad it is,” said Steve, sitting in the Boston Common with an empty styrofoam cup in hand.
Though Steve is unfamiliar with either bill, he said he would welcome “anything that helps the homeless … Anything that tries to eliminate any kind of discrimination would of course be very helpful.”