Legislatures can't force people to be kind to each other, but they can require government employees not to be cruel. This is, in part, why Rhode Island's General Assembly recently passed a Homeless Bill of Rights [PDF]. A simple guide for the perplexed bureaucrat or police officer, the Homeless Bill of Rights is a list of the seven fall-back positions that all of the state and municipal authorities have to take when dealing with homeless people.
Recognizing that, in some states, police forbid and arrest homeless people for sitting on sidewalks and resting on park benches, the first provision declares that homeless people have "the right to use and move freely in public spaces" without being treated differently than other members of the public who are in those places. If little children can nap on park benches and bus commuters can sit on the sidewalk until their ride comes, then so may homeless people.
Because some government service agencies require people to identify where they live in order to, for example, receive food or renew a professional license or government-granted permit, the second provision asserts that homeless people have "the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies." The agencies will need to modify their rules, perhaps to allow e-mail addresses for official communications and to accept a letters of proof from non-profit agents or business owners who can attest to the homeless applicant's actual presence in the state.
Lest an employer be tempted to deny someone a job on the assumption that the applicant, who has listed "none" or else written "c/o homeless shelter" as his address might not stick around, the third provision in the Bill of Rights prohibits employers from using the lack of a permanent address as a basis for either firing or not hiring someone. Also, if a hospital or urgent care center is inclined to refuse treatment for patients who can't supply a street address for billing purposes, this bill of rights says the medical facility does not have that option.
Everyone knows that voter registration is connected with location of residence because the number of legislative representatives is allocated according to how many people are in need of representation. But there can be ways for even transient homeless people to declare themselves residents of a voting district where they live; it just means that the state election authority needs to make a rule and a form to facilitate such declarations. Rhode Island's Homeless Bill of Rights calls for homeless people to be able to register to vote, receive a voter identification document to present at the polls and submit their votes. So, in that state, the election authority has to figure out how to register and document the voters who do not have permanent housing.
Shelters sometimes offer job counseling or facilitate indigent medications and health supplies or provide information and referrals directing clients to local social services. In doing that work, they acquire a lot of personal information about their clients — information that might interest somebody trying to investigate a particular homeless person. It might even be possible to profit from selling that information, but the Homeless Bill of Rights requires that any personal facts collected by shelters about their clients must be kept confidential.
When homeless people live outside, instead of in shelters, they run the risk of losing their possessions in "homeless sweeps" when sanitation crews or other public authorities are deputized to empty out homeless encampments. That is a type of government seizure of personal property. Since their belongings are out in the open, they are also at risk of having it searched and seized by the police because, normally, possessions that are outside in public view are not considered private.
Police only have to get a search warrant to look in places where someone would have "a reasonable expectation of privacy" like a house or the closed compartments of a car. Homeless people living in vehicles have a lot of their things easily visible where police can see them without having to open a compartment. In Rhode Island, because of the capstone Homeless Bill of Rights provision proclaiming that every homeless person has "the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence," those search and seizure risks are alleviated.
There are many ways to implement these provisions. Municipalities might enact ordinances to deal with some of them and there will be new regulations from state agencies. Other provisions might only require changes in policy manuals, or the revision of procedures for information collection and the operation of certain types of databases.
All of the substantive matters, such as sanitary conditions in shelters and ID laws for auto insurance, will be handled according to each government entity's range of responsibilities. Variable though the substance of government responsibility might be, from now on it will always be premised on these fundamental rights set forth in the Homeless Bill of Rights. That perpetual assurance is the second reason for Rhode Island's adoption of the bill.
Having visited, in January 2011, an overcrowded, unsanitary and wholly inadequate shelter in Cranston that was housing ten percent of the state's homeless population yet did not even have food available, Senator John Tassoni, chairman of the Rhode Island Senate's Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, immediately convened hearings to collect facts about what was happening with the state's homeless population and how they were being served. He crafted the bill to address the common themes of government actions that arose in those hearings: denials of access due to a lack of street address, unjust and substandard treatment and arbitrary property seizures, among other issues.
In March 2011, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, informed by the hearing revelations, re-activated [PDF] the state's Interagency Council on Homelessness. Associated with the federal agency of the same name, this state council exists to convene representatives from various executive branch agencies working with the homeless and coordinate their work, making access to services more efficient and effective for homeless people. Had there been a Homeless Bill of Rights already in place a few years ago, the previous council would likely not have been disbanded.
It took just a year and a half from the senator's shelter visit to the passage of Rhode Island's Homeless Bill of Rights. That is fast action indicative of a state government's awareness that it was just not treating people right and that it needed a permanent set of standards.
Linda Tashbook is the Foreign, International and Comparative Law Librarian at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. She serves as a homeless advocate, for which she received the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Attorney Pro Bono Award in 2011. She is also the author of the Homeless Law Blog.
Suggested citation: Linda Tashbook, Rhode Island's Homeless Bill of Rights, JURIST - Forum, July 4, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2012/06/linda-tashbook-homeless-rights.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Caleb Pittman, head of JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org