June 20, 2012; Source: Mother Jones

In contrast to cities and states that have been trying to sweep the homeless out of sight by criminalizing aspects of homeless activity (like strengthened laws against loitering and asking for change), Rhode Island is taking the “high road,” according to Mother Jones reporter Erika Eichelberger.

The Rhode Island State Assembly has just passed the first Homeless Bill of Rights in the U.S. We looked at the text of the bill, which we assume is pretty much the same as the legislation that will be presented to Gov. Lincoln Chafee next week. The purpose of the law is that, “(N)o person should suffer unnecessarily or be subject to unfair discrimination based on his or her homeless status. It is the intent of this [law]…to ameliorate the adverse effects visited upon individuals and our communities when the state’s residents lack a home.” The bill contains the following provisions, among others, which are worth quoting at some length to see if this bill might be a model for other states:

“A person experiencing homelessness: (1) Has the right to use and move freely in public spaces, including, but not limited to, public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person, and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status; (2) Has the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status; (3) Has the right not to face discrimination while seeking or maintaining employment due to his or her lack of permanent mailing address, or his or her mailing address being that of a shelter or social service provider; (4) Has the right to emergency medical care free from discrimination based on his or her housing status; (5) Has the right to vote, register to vote, and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting without discrimination due to his or her housing status; (6) Has the right to protection from disclosure of his or her records and information provided to homeless shelters and service providers to state, municipal and private entities without appropriate legal authority; and the right to confidentiality of personal records and information in accordance with all limitations on disclosure established by the Federal Homeless Management Information Systems, the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Federal Violence Against Women Act; and (7) 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.”

Should there be a right to shelter—that is, a right afforded to everyone of a decent, safe home? We don’t think the Rhode Island homeless bill of rights guarantee the homeless the right to shelter or, even better, the right to a home to cure their homelessness. Still, this is a new development in civil rights. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty believes that this is the first time a state has made “unequal treatment based on housing status…a form of discrimination, which will allow enforcement through litigation.” So one state in this nation’s increasingly federalized system has made discrimination against the homeless based on their lack of a home a violation of civil rights. How quickly will other states pick up this tack? Or does it need a federal standard, rather than subjecting the homeless to various levels of state-by-state acceptance and enforcement?—Rick Cohen