Rhode Island's Homeless Bill of Rights

Late last month, Rhode Island’s governor signed into law a bill which establishes a “Homeless Bill of Rights” in that state. In addition to enumerating seven rights guaranteed to homeless persons, the bill amends Rhode Island’s Fair Housing Practices Act to include ‘housing status’ as a trait which cannot serve as a basis of discrimination.

The first right protected by the bill is the “right to use and move freely in public spaces …​ public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings…​” In light of the national and global trend of implementing curfews and ‘sit/lie’ ordinances aimed directly at excluding homeless from publics spaces, this is almost revolutionary! The bill also guarantees “the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies” and “the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property…​” So police in Rhode Island will not as easily be able to harass homeless people and throw away their property, which is a routine part of police work in so many other places.

How did a bill like this ever become law? Doesn’t Rhode Island have business improvement districts which are supposed to make sure these sorts of human rights don’t interfere with the comfort of consumers as they shop? And how will the courts interpret the ‘without discrimination due to his or her housing status’ clause which qualifies each right? Will it be more “equality” in the sense of Anatole France’s formulation (“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”), or will this bill actually allow homeless people to use public spaces, protect them from police harassment, and give them security in their possessions?

Here are all of the enumerated rights from the senate version of the bill:

(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.

— S2052 Substitute B

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