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RI considers 'Homeless Bill of Rights'

Eddie Vega has been homeless for a year. He was waiting for a bus one day last week when a police officer rolled up to ask what he was doing and where he was headed. Vega said it's the kind of subtle harassment that happens all the time.

"I get the looks," said the 31-year-old Providence man, squinting because he recently lost his glasses in a fight that also left him with stiches on his forehead. "It's the same hassle everywhere. Happens every day. There's nothing you can do. You speak up and you get in trouble."

Vega had just finished a bologna sandwich at a weekly soup kitchen set up in the Rhode Island Statehouse, where lawmakers are now considering first-of-its kind legislation that would create a "Homeless Bill of Rights" intended to give people like Vega greater protection from discrimination.

The bill would specifically prohibit law enforcement, health care workers, potential landlords or employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status. The measure's sponsor, Sen. John Tassoni, said most Americans probably aren't aware of the daily discrimination faced by homeless people.

"Nobody decides one day they want to be homeless," said the Smithfield Democrat. "And nobody deserves to put up with the stuff these people have to deal with every day. It's time we did something to stop the appalling things that go on."

Tassoni said he's heard stories about homeless people being kicked out of libraries even though they had library cards, rejected for jobs or apartments, or told to leave a public park just because they were homeless. He said he sponsored the bill to make it clear that homeless people must be treated just like anyone else.

The bill passed the Senate earlier this month and now awaits a vote in the House, where some lawmakers are concerned about how the proposal would be implemented and enforced. Would police face lawsuits if they asked a homeless person to stop loitering in an area? Would librarians have to think twice before asking a disruptive homeless person to leave?

"There are issues with this bill's unintended consequences," said House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello. "That bill has the potential for causing significant problems for our municipalities."

Supporters worry such concerns could scuttle the legislation this year. No vote on the measure is scheduled in the House. Mattiello said he couldn't say for sure whether the measure would come up before lawmakers adjourn for the year, probably next month.

But if municipal leaders or police chiefs oppose the bill, they're doing so quietly. Daniel Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns said he hasn't heard any objections to the legislation. Tassoni said he hasn't been contacted by any mayors or police chiefs with concerns either.

Advocates for the homeless said the Bill of Rights shouldn't pose a burden to cities or police departments — unless they are actively discriminating against the homeless now.

Many kinds of discrimination against the homeless are already illegal under state or federal laws. Homeless people cannot be turned away at the polls, for instance, and it's illegal for hospitals to refuse them emergency medical treatment.

But while state law already prohibits discrimination based on characteristics such as a person's religion, gender, race or disability, there is no formal, specific protection for the homeless.

Rhode Island would be the first state to pass legislation to protect the homeless in such a comprehensive manner, according to Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"Ideally we wouldn't have to have something like this," Donovan said.

The idea behind the legislation is to make it clear — to the homeless as well as law enforcement, local officials and potential landlords and employers — that discrimination isn't legal. It's also designed to be enforceable, so homeless people who believe they've faced discrimination have grounds to sue.

"It's not about giving individuals who are homeless extra rights, it's about leveling the playing field," said Megan Smith, a homeless advocate who co-wrote the bill of rights.

At its extreme, discrimination against the homeless can become violent. Since 1999 there have been 1,184 cases of violence in the U.S. against homeless people attributed to bias, according to a compilation by Donovan's organization. More than 300 of those cases involved the death of a homeless person.

Rhode Island lawmakers passed a law in 2010 making it a hate crime to commit a crime against someone because they are homeless.

But most of the discrimination facing the homeless is much more subtle, according to several homeless people interviewed by The Associated Press.

Fern Wante said he is routinely questioned by police when walking, sitting in a park or waiting for a bus. He said store clerks will ask him to leave before he can even make a purchase. Restaurants won't serve him. Twice recently he was waiting at a bus stop, he said, only to see the bus drive past. One driver even waved at him, he said.

In many cases, discrimination makes it harder for the homeless to find permanent housing or a job, according to Frank Nolan, who was homeless for several months last year after his appendix burst and he lacked insurance to pay for treatment. Nolan, who now lives in an apartment, has lobbied lawmakers to pass the Bill of Rights.

"They're trying to get off the street but they can't get an apartment because they put a shelter down as their previous address," he said. "The same thing happens when you apply for a job. They see a shelter on there and that's it."

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