Rhode Island’s governor is expected to sign into law the first “Homeless Bill of Rights” in the United States as early as next week, formally banning discrimination against homeless people and affirming their equal access to jobs, housing and services.
The legislation, which won final approval by the state Senate on Wednesday, bucks a national trend among municipalities toward outlawing behaviors associated with homelessness such as eating, sleeping and panhandling in public spaces.
Among other steps, the Rhode Island law would guarantee homeless people the right to use public sidewalks, parks and transportation as well as public buildings, like anyone else “without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.”
It guarantees a “reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to personal belongings similar to that of people who have homes.
While other laws already guarantee many of the rights specified in this legislation, supporters say it was necessary due to widespread discrimination.
“I think we’ve set the bar high in the U.S. for homeless people, and I’m very proud of that,” said Senator John Tassoni, a sponsor of the bill.
Rhode Island is the smallest of the 50 U.S. states.
Tassoni and other homeless advocates said Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee would likely sign the bill in coming days. Chafee’s office said it could not comment until the bill was formally presented to the governor for signing.
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS ARE HOMELESS
Roughly 643,000 people are homeless on any given night in the United States, experts say.
“It’s important as a standalone piece of legislation but also as it’s juxtaposed with other communities that are in the process of criminalizing homelessness,” said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“This just affirms the rights and existence of the unhoused in America.”
Cities including Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Louis recently passed ordinances targeting the homeless or have stepped up enforcement of existing regulations.
A report in April from the White House’s Interagency Council on Homelessness noted a “proliferation of local measures to criminalize ‘acts of living'” such as sitting, standing or asking for money in public places.
“You’re just looked down on because you’re carrying your life on your back,” said John Joyce of Providence, who was homeless for three years and now is co-director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project.