Hundreds of Rhode Island advocates gathered at the State House on June 27 to celebrate enactment of the Homeless Bill of Rights, groundbreaking legislation that officially bans discrimination against people experiencing homelessness and affirms their equal access to housing, employment and public services. Rhode Island is now the first state in the nation to enact a law that gives homeless people facing discrimination grounds to take legal action. The Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), an NLIHC state coalition partner, attributes this achievement to innovative strategies coordinated between state and national advocates and lawmakers, starting with the bill’s conception.
The law protects homeless people from unfair treatment by current or prospective employers because they lack a permanent address or list as a permanent address a shelter or social service provider. Further, the law affirms the right to register to vote and vote without discrimination based on housing status. It also asserts the right of homeless people to use public spaces in the same manner as any other person, and to receive equal treatment by municipal and state agencies. To ensure the bill’s passage, language was removed that decriminalized sleeping outside when shelters are full.
“I’m proud to be governor of the first state in the nation to establish a Homeless Bill of Rights,” said Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) in a RICH press release. “We have sent a clear and important message that all Rhode Islanders, regardless of their status, will be treated with dignity and respect. I now look forward to the day when Rhode Island will become the first state in the nation to end chronic homelessness.”
Development of the Homeless Bill of Rights was spearheaded by John Joyce, a formerly homeless person and co-founder of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP). After hearing about civil rights violations experienced by homeless Rhode Islanders and studying nationwide trends, Mr. Joyce drafted the initial version of the legislation and worked with the state’s American Civil Liberties Union affiliate and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty to revise the bill’s language, giving it the “teeth” it needed to be enforceable in court.
Advocates worked with bill’s sponsor and champion, Senator John J. Tassoni, Jr., to advance the legislation through the Senate. Advocates responded to concerns expressed in the House by calling and emailing legislators, urging support for the measure. To raise public awareness, advocates ran a weekly soup kitchen out of the State House, a visual reminder that homelessness is a severe problem in Rhode Island.
While having a conversation with a homeless person at one of these events, a key representative saw discrimination firsthand when a State House police officer viewed their interaction and intervened, asking the representative, “Is everything ok?” Advocates believe this incident may have helped build momentum for the House’s approval.
RICH and RIHAP teamed with Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, a Brown University student organization committed to working with people experiencing homelessness. Students helped to gain the support of Speaker of the House Gordon Fox (D) by canvassing his district with educational materials about the legislation and discrimination people without housing face. Advocates also generated more than 700 signatures from the Speaker’s constituents in support of a Homeless Bill of Rights.
“Civil rights legislation has never been primarily about suing in the courts. It is about changing behavior to stop discriminatory practices,” said RICH Executive Director Jim Ryczek. “We see passage of this landmark law as a way to help our state understand homelessness better. We hope it will be the next step in ending homelessness in Rhode Island altogether. “
RICH plans to launch a public education campaign in the next few months to raise awareness among professional groups and public departments, such as the state hospital association and city and town police departments, which must work to ensure compliance with the new law. Advocates also plan to work with volunteer attorneys to determine the processes for taking legal action against violators.
For more information, contact Jim Ryczek, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, at email@example.com.