Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights Offers New Hope

Rhode Island has become the first state in the country to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights. The law passed with the overwhelming support of both houses of the Rhode Island state legislature. It may offer new hope to homeless people who suffer unequal treatment from police and government officials.

by Western Regional Advocacy Project


On June 22, 2012, Rhode Island became the first state in the country to pass what it calls a Homeless Bill of Rights. This Bill of Rights was the result of six months of organizing by the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Advocacy Project that involved creative actions such as soup kitchens near the legislature in Providence.

The law passed with the overwhelming support of both houses of the Rhode Island state legislature. Let us examine what the law says step by step.

“Homeless people have the same rights as everyone else.”

This doesn’t do much by itself, but it may end up being useful in “equal protection” lawsuits (lawsuits based on the idea that laws should apply equally to all people). Not all lawyers think that this is realistic: It may be best to see this as a statement of principle, but not a clause that will see legal action.

“Homeless people have the same right to use public spaces as everyone else.”

This is probably already guaranteed by the Constitution. It doesn’t necessarily prohibit anti-homeless laws such as sit/lie laws, but, like the above right, it might be useful in future equal protection lawsuits. Lawyers who worked on Rhode Island’s Bill of Rights hope that it will be useful against injunctions against homeless people using particular public spaces, and against police policies or warnings banning homeless people from public spaces.

“Homeless people have the right to equal treatment from state and local government agencies.”

“Homeless people have the right not to be discriminated against in employment or medical care.”

“Homeless people have the right to vote and to receive an ID for voting purposes.”

Many, many places in the country have made it more difficult for homeless people to vote. Without a permanent address, it can be hard to get the kind of ID a person needs for the ballot box.

“Homeless people have the right to privacy in the records that shelters hold.”

There are some limitations to this imposed by federal and state law, but otherwise, shelters and service providers can’t just give homeless people’s personal information away to other individuals or governmental agencies without appropriate legal authority, such as a warrant.

“Homeless people have the same right to privacy in their personal property that housed people have.”

Some lawyers hope this will make it easier for homeless people to protect their property from confiscation or destruction by police or other government employees.

What’s not in the bill? It’s amazing that Rhode Island succeeded in getting a Bill of Rights passed, but it’s also useful to think about what kinds of specific protections would be useful in our communities.

Right to Housing or Shelter

The original version of the Rhode Island law includes a “right to fair, decent and affordable housing in the community of his or her choosing, and access to safe and proximate shelter until such housing can be attained…”

Right to Rest or Sleep

The second version of the law replaced the right to housing and shelter with the following: “A person experiencing homelessness… [h]as the right not to be subject to criminal sanctions for resting or sleeping in a public place in a non-obstructive manner when there is no available and accessible shelter space…” Unfortunately, neither provision made it into the passed version. Meanwhile, sit/lie laws are on the rise, and laws that prohibit camping, sleeping in public and loitering are everywhere.

“(cart)” Homeless people endure a forced march to nowhere. Painting by Jonathan Burstein


Right to Counsel

The original version of the law ensured a “right to legal counsel equal to that extended to any other citizen of the state…” That might not have done too much. In San Francisco, homeless people are disproportionately cited for various infractions that simply result from being homeless. But recipients of infraction citations don’t get public defenders in California. That situation would not have been remedied by the Homeless Bill of Rights that passed in Rhode Island.

No Selective Enforcement

Many kinds of laws, such as jaywalking laws, technically apply to everyone, but are selectively used against particular groups of people, such as homeless people.

Right to Income

While groups like the ACLU hold that panhandling is Constitutionally protected, numerous local laws make it criminal to ask for money in certain public places.

Right to Share Food

One of the most common kinds of public space restrictions recently has been prohibitions on programs that share food with hungry people in public places.

Right to Hygienic Locations

It’s criminal to urinate or defecate in almost all public places. But if there were a right to access to clean toilets, how much impact would those laws have?

But the fact that the Bill doesn’t include every right that homeless people need is not a loss: This is a tremendous victory. It’s just the first step. Organizers in Oregon have already begun organizing for a powerful Homeless People’s Bill of Rights there. California may be next.

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