Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee has signed a Homeless Bill of Rights into law, the first of its kind in the nation. The law is designed to fight discrimination and harassment directed against homeless individuals. That includes ensuring the right of individuals to move freely in public spaces, to have equal opportunity for jobs and to be treated fairly by employers, to vote and receive the necessary state documents to be able to vote and to expect respect of personal property. The bill places an individual’s housing status in the same category as religion, gender, sexuality and race as illegal grounds for discrimination. The legislation was first seen as controversial, with some members of Rhode Island’s legislature fearing that the bill would prove a hindrance to police officers and city workers, and could draw the state into costly lawsuits. Proponents rebutted that, if state employees were treating everyone with respect, such concerns would be a non-issue.
In broader terms, the bill’s stated purpose is to move a step closer to ensuring all residents of Rhode Island have “an equal opportunity to live in decent, safe and sanitary accommodations regardless of housing status.” The law places pressure on both private citizens such as landlords, employers, pedestrians and public officials such as police officers and librarians, who have been known to kick presumed homeless individuals out of libraries. While one would hope that such a safeguard for the disadvantaged wouldn’t be necessary, the Homeless Bill of Rights stands in contrast to a growing body of city and state laws which criminalize homelessness and attempt to move those living on the streets out of highly visible public spaces. Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Berkley, California are pursuing or recently enacted ‘acts of living’ laws that make it illegal to partake in such actions as sitting on the sidewalk, asking others for change or camping in public space. The proliferation of these ‘act of living’ laws has increased so much over the past few years that the Justice Department and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness commissioned a study to look into the effectiveness and legality of such laws. Released in April, the report sharply criticized the ongoing criminalization of homelessness, finding that such legislation is an ineffective way of dealing with homelessness while costing cities and states. This seems to make perfect sense: Sending homeless people to court and jailing them only adds to the pernicious instability of life on the street while sucking up city funding. As an alternative, the report proposes a more integrated and comprehensive system of services and aid to help those who are homeless, arguing for greater cooperation and communication between health care and social service providers, police officers, and the justice system. As I noted recently, the most cost-effective and respectful way to help people who are homeless is often to provide comprehensive services and coordinated housing that allows individuals the support and patience to build a life off the street. Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights falls short of providing these sorts of services or working substanatively towards ending homelessness. However, at least it’s a sign that governments don’t have to be adverserial towards homeless people.
Isaac Dalke is a summer 2012 In These Times editorial intern.