Homeless Bill of Rights in Massachusetts: Should it be a thing?


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“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.” – Pope Francis I

This year’s Visioning Day focused on discrimination and the systems that influence that discrimination- whether it is perpetuating it, ignoring it, or eradicating it.

LeeAnn Byrne, Policy Coordinator for the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, joined us to discuss the recently passed Homeless Bill of Rights in Rhode Island.

LeeAnn shared the policy process with us– including how advocates raised awareness, how those involved got – and kept- the attention of policy makers, and how they overcame opposition to get this simple piece of legislation passed.

The R.I. Coalition was creative and resilient;  they made sure that their tactics were clear- they are not looking for extra rights with this bill, but equal rights.  In raising awareness, they worked with Occupy Providence to organize a “State House Soup Kitchen”.  Together, they realized that there gaps in providing food for homeless individuals so they brought that concern to the State House.

Each week, a member organization of the Coalition co-sponsored the day by providing information on their services and bagged lunches to people experiencing homelessness and/or hunger; they could eat in the State House, or take them to go.  LeeAnn pointed out that “in addition to providing a meal to our constituents on a day that it is difficult to get one, it reminded our constituents that the State House is thier house-  it helped make the building less intimidating”.

They also initiated an “Adopt a Champion” program to connect advocates and the legislature to keep communication lines open, and so that there was clear accountability.  “Adopters” were matched with legislators who were in their district with the goal being to make that legislator a champion.  It made it so that there was at least one person sending emails, news articles, and information throughout the State House. And just like the Soup Kitchen, the reason for this method was two fold- it enabled a stronger conversation while empowering advocates and stakeholders to develop a relationship with their legislator.

We want to share some of their efforts and insights in hopes of sparking a conversation about a Homeless Bill of Rights for Massachusetts, and if there is a place for it here, how do we go about ensuring proper design and implementation?

As it happens, Representative Pignatelli has proposed a similar bill. 

In sum:

Bills like this have been passed in Rhode Island and proposed in the states of California, Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut and Missouri. Things like this are happening.

As proposed by Rep Pignatelli, this bill “would serve as a message of legislative intent, showing that the Massachusetts legislature does not believe in discrimination on the basis of housing status.”

These rights include:

(1) The right to use and move freely in public spaces

(2) The right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies

(3) The right not to face discrimination while seeking or maintaining employment

(4) The right to emergency medical care

(5) The right to vote, register to vote and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting

(6) 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 United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Federal Violence Against Women Act; and

(7) 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.

We received a lot of feedback from our session in Visioning Day, but we want to know:

-Do you think Homes for Families should advocate for this bill?

-If so, what do you think should be included and how can we make it Massachusetts specific?

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