States Must Enact Comprehensive Legislation to Protect Homeless Commentary
States Must Enact Comprehensive Legislation to Protect Homeless
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JURIST Guest Columnist Sapphire Jule King of the International Freedom Coalition argues that states need to enact comprehensive legislation to protect the homeless…

Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights, the first in the nation, makes history by protecting individuals and families experiencing homelessness from discrimination. However, the landmark legislation [PDF] fails to protect these vulnerable citizens from the twin evils of discrimination and shelter abuse as it was originally intended.

In 2010, I first drafted and began lobbying Rhode Island advocates, community leaders, and elected officials to support a comprehensive Homeless Bill of Rights. The vision for the bill came as a direct result of a critical, ethnographic study [PDF] of the Providence homeless provider system conducted by my nonprofit organization, the International Freedom Coalition. As principal investigator, I covertly lived as a woman experiencing homelessness for seven months.

Surprisingly, I observed and was subjected to abuse by shelter staff and security personnel that met Rhode Island’s definition under § 23-17.8-1 of its general laws. Moreover, I endured and watched other residents battle and oftentimes bow to the harassment, intimidation, and bullying by security personnel as defined in the state’s laws governing domestic abuse (§ 15-15-1) and bullying on school campuses (§ 16-21-26). Although the definition in § 16-21-26 has since been repealed, anti-bullying laws in the remaining 49 states resemble Rhode Island’s original definition, wholly or in part.

Further, I gained an insider’s view of wasteful and potentially fraudulent practices by shelter staff as well as discrimination by the shelter’s housing locator, external housing agencies, and potential employers. Members of the general community were aware of the abuses taking place. Yet advocacy groups, community leaders and even legislators concerned about homeless issues primarily focused on obtaining more funds for shelter beds or long-term affordable housing.

In my preparatory legal research for writing the bill, I was astounded by the body of existing federal and state laws throughout the country that protect people from verbal, mental and emotional abuse, harassment, intimidation, bullying and discrimination at home, the workplace, schools, nursing homes, mental health institutions, long term care facilities and in society in general — all forms of maltreatment exacted against a person experiencing homelessness in our study. In Louisiana, it is even illegal to harass or taunt anyone riding a bicycle.

Rhode Island — along with Alaska, Florida, Maryland, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC — passed hate crimes legislation within the past few years to protect people experiencing homelessness from violence in the community. Cleveland and Seattle passed ordinances prohibiting the harassment and intimidation of homeless individuals. The Illinois House of Representatives passed a primarily anti-discrimination Bill of Rights for the Homeless. However, none of these legislative efforts specifically address the maltreatment perpetrated by shelter staff against citizens once they exit the general community and walk through those shelter doors.

The truth became undoubtedly clear: any citizen in the US enjoys a legal shield against maltreatment and discrimination as long as he or she is not homeless or residing in a homeless shelter. For blue collar workers, middle class families and white collar professionals who find themselves displaced due to unemployment, foreclosure, economic hardship or any other reason, these protections suddenly no longer apply to them. Members of society, by their own actions, have banished these ordinary people in a vulnerable situation to an oppressed class that need extra protections.

Thus, the rights presented in our original 25-point bill inherently include safeguards against fraud and waste while specifically addressing the potential for abuse and discrimination. To move our concept of a homeless bill of rights from a frivolous, feel-good act to legitimate and enforceable legislation, I wrote or selected each element based upon text from existing federal and state laws — specifically the 2004 Illinois bill of rights — and my own language using my research experiences and observations as a guide.

Our side-by-side comparison chart [PDF] summarizes the rights in our proposed bill, the legal and research bases for each and a direct comparison of Rhode Island’s new law to our original proposal.

The following three rights enumerated in our proposed bill to Rhode Island advocates prove to be the most critical for preserving the safety, dignity and equality of people when they experience homelessness.

Right 1. “The right to receive safe, appropriate, courteous, and high quality care, shelter, and services in a timely manner with consideration, dignity, respect, and equality by all.”

The investigational data reported in our study’s compliance audit of a Providence, Rhode Island shelter found that the service provider operated at a substandard level related to their own safety, security and staff-resident interaction guidelines. This measure, along with Right (2), would make dignified treatment compulsory rather than optional.

Laws requiring staff and administrators to create a safe, respectful environment for individuals in a vulnerable living arrangement already exist and are enforced. In fact, the language in Rhode Island’s Home Care Patient Rights (§ 23-17.16-2) is nearly identical to ours, except for the addition of the words “courteous” and “shelter.” The Rights of Nursing Home Patients (§ 23-17.5-2) in the state’s Licensing of Health Care Facilities code also ensures that “each patient shall be treated and cared for with consideration, respect, and dignity[.]”

These laws, similar to related legislation in other states, echo the overarching Quality of Life and Resident Rights guaranteed and enforced by the Code of Federal Regulations governing nursing homes and long term care facilities. Pursuant to 42 C.F.R. § 483.10: “[T]he resident has a right to a dignified existence [and] self-determination… A facility must protect and promote the rights of each resident.” Additionally, 42 C.F.R. § 483.15 on quality of life requires that “the facility must promote care for residents in a manner and in an environment that maintains or enhances each resident’s dignity and respect in full recognition of his or her individuality.”

Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights makes no quality of service or quality of care provisions requiring dignified treatment.

Right 4. “The right to be free from discrimination on the basis of… housing status or perceived housing status by public and private entities, shelters, service providers and their staff or other clients or residents.”

Two examples from our study involving the federally-funded Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing (HPRP) program embody the most blatant discrimination perpetrated by not only a private rental agency but also the shelter’s HPRP housing locator. In essence, both parties denied participants their right to move into self-selected apartments that were clean, of better quality, located in better neighborhoods and within the agreed upon rental range.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the preposterous practices of segregation and “separate but equal” treatment of individuals based upon certain fundamental characteristics that others may find personally displeasing. Fortunately, all seven of the rights in Rhode Island’s new law do address discrimination — particularly in housing, public spaces, and employment as detailed under Rights (4), (14) and (25) of our proposal.

Right 5. “The right to be free from threats or coercion; mental, emotional, verbal, or physical abuse; harassment, intimidation or bullying; stalking or cyberstalking; physical punishment; damage to or theft of property; or exploitation of any kind by public and private entities, shelters, service providers and their staff, or other clients or residents.”

The program guidelines for the shelter in our study states: “We expect guests and staff to interact with each other in a non-violent and non-threatening manner. The safety of each guest is important, therefore no abusive language, threats, or the use of intimidation is allowed.”

However, staff willfully and repeatedly violated this policy as a course of conduct.

Federal regulations for long term care facilities in 42 C.F.R. § 483.13 mandate that “the resident has the right to be free from verbal… and mental abuse.” Likewise, both Rhode Island’s Home Care Patient Rights and Rights of Nursing Home Patients reaffirm that “patients shall not be subject to mental and physical abuse[.]”

Under Rhode Island’s definition, “abuse” is broadly defined as:

“[I]ntentionally engaging in a pattern of harassing conduct which causes or is likely to cause emotional or psychological harm to the patient or resident, including but not limited to, ridiculing or demeaning …, making derogatory remarks… or cursing…, or threatening to inflict physical or emotional harm on a patient or resident.”

These federal and state regulations further codify enforcement, reporting, quality assurance and compliance mechanisms. For example, 42 C.F.R. § 483.13 stipulates that “the facility must develop and implement written policies and procedures that prohibit mistreatment, neglect, and abuse of residents[.]”

Furthermore, Rhode Island’s anti-bullying, domestic abuse and workplace violence protection (§ 28-52-2) laws prohibit harassment and emotional harm in other everyday settings. The remaining states also have similar laws. Nonetheless, the new legislation makes no such provisions.

In all, Rhode Island’s adaption of our proposed Homeless Bill of Rights only, wholly or in part, satisfies seven of the 25 measures. All were anti-discrimination. I certainly applaud the advocates and legislators for listening, seeing value in my proposal and deciding on a subset of provisions to start with as I was advised by the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. Nonetheless, the anti-abuse protections that were ultimately excluded still leave thousands of individuals and families exposed to harm.

Critics of the new law discard it as mere feel-good legislation since existing federal and state laws already offer these protections to everyone, especially those in vulnerable situations. In a sense, they are correct. This law — and hopefully one that ultimately prohibits abuse as well — will make people experiencing homelessness feel much better once other members of society can no longer elect to treat them differently.

The question now is: which state will make true history by enacting an anti-abuse and anti-discrimination law that comprehensively protects everyday citizens when they find themselves unable to maintain a place to call home?

Sapphire Jule King is the CEO of King Triune Group and the founder and president of the International Freedom Coalition — a nonprofit organization dedicated to building strong families and eradicating child abuse worldwide.

Suggested citation: Sapphire Jule King, States Need to Enact Comprehensive Legislation to Protect Homeless, JURIST – Hotline, Aug. 14, 2012,

This article was prepared for publication by Sean Gallagher, the head of JURIST’s Professional Commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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