RI homeless bill of rights praised as US model

While cities across the nation enact laws against panhandling and outdoor sleeping, Rhode Island is being held up as a national model for protecting homeless individuals from discrimination.

Advocates say the state's new homeless bill of rights goes further than any other law in the nation to prevent discrimination against people who lack housing.

The new law prohibits governments, police, healthcare workers, landlords or employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status. Gov. Lincoln Chafee and advocates for the homeless celebrated the enactment of the new law Wednesday with an event outside the Statehouse.

"Today, in Rhode Island, hatred, bigotry and discrimination is not accepted," said John Joyce, co-founder of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and one of the authors of the new law.

Rhode Island stands in contrast with many cities around the country that are taking steps to criminalize homelessness, according to Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. She said her organization has noticed a sharp increase in laws around the country prohibiting panhandling, sleeping outdoors or loitering.

"We've seen a lot of egregious examples lately," she said. "People are having their civil rights violated every day in cities across the country."

The Denver City Council voted last month to prohibit eating or sleeping on public or private property without permission. In Dallas, city officials now prohibit people from giving food to the homeless unless they register with the city first. Officials in Berkeley, Calif., have proposed a ban on sitting on sidewalks.

Johnson called Rhode Island's measure "historic legislation" and said she hopes advocates around the country work to pass similar laws.

Michele St. Pierre became homeless after she was evicted from her apartment. She now stays in shelters, with friends or on the street if she can find nowhere else to go. She said homeless people face discrimination every day. The 46-year-old woman said a police officer recently threatened to arrest her if she didn't leave a bus stop in downtown Providence.

"He said, 'I'll give you five minutes to get out of here and then I'm going to arrest you,'" she said. "Where do they want me to go? We don't have enough shelters."

The bill of rights was designed to be enforceable, so that homeless people who believe they've faced discrimination have grounds to sue. But it was also designed to send the message that the homeless have the same rights as anyone else, according to Jim Ryczek of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

"Civil rights laws have always been primarily about changing behavior," Ryczek said.

A lawmaker who sponsored the new law said he hopes the rest of the U.S. takes notice of what the nation's smallest state has done.

"Now we're a leader in something," said state Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield. "Hopefully other states will now pick up the slack and move this all the way across the country to California."