Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
Legislators: ‘Civil Rights Bill just makes common sense’
Illinois is the second state in the nation with a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” and as such leads a trend against criminalization of people who lack housing.
Passed by the Illinois General Assembly last May and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on August 22, the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless has five main protections, according to Jennifer Cushman, policy specialist at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) who worked with legislative sponsors last spring to secure its support.
“There are two things I usually highlight,” Cushman said.
“The bill states that you cannot be discriminated against in maintaining employment in terms of housing status.” The inspiration for this clause of the bill was a man whom CCH lawyers represented: he worked for the library and was fired when officials discovered he was homeless. CCH won the case. The man was awarded his old job and back pay. The new law extends this protection to the rest of Illinois beyond Cook County.
“The other thing that I think is the important piece is the protection of personal property; they can’t be discriminated in terms of the personal property they have with them the same as if they were in a private residence,” Cushman said. This clause will govern how city officials treat people who are living on the street, particularly in terms of their medications and items of sentimental value, she said.
Although the intent of the bill is to prevent discrimination and to provide guidance to public agencies and private organizations, there is a provision that allows homeless people to sue for actual damages of what they have lost. The intent is not to pursue outrageous settlements but to protect rights, especially rights that have been violated, Cushman said.
Still other protections in the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless include:
The right to access emergency medical care
The right to access public spaces and transit systems
The right to vote on the same basis as other people.
“I just thought it was an interesting concept, something we needed in Illinois,” said State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago), who initiated the bill in the Illinois General Assembly and who represents parts of the North Side as well as Skokie, Lincolnwood, Niles and Morton Grove. “People should be able to move freely through public buildings, parks and sidewalks, we should not be discriminating.”
Silverstein said he doesn’t always wait for people to come to him with legislative ideas. Instead, during the summer he looks online and in magazines from progressive states for “good bills that can help society, bills that affect people, improve their lives, make a difference.”
Silverstein’s inspiration for the bill was Rhode Island, the first state to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights. Ironically, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless says on its website that Illinois gave them the idea. The CCH website also cites Cushman’s research that in 2004, the late state Rep. Wyvetter Younge (D-East St. Louis) sponsored HB 4116, which passed the Illinois House but did not advance to the Senate.
However, Younge’s bill had three provisions contained in the new Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless: the right to emergency medical care, the right to vote and the right to privacy of personal records.
As an attorney downtown, Silverstein said he sees homeless people on street corners. “You have to help everybody nowadays, you can’t walk by and ignore them. They are individuals too. I was always taught in the Jewish religion you’ve got to look out for other people, try to do a mitzvah every day, look out for everybody. I look at it as an honor to be a senator. I am grateful to God everyday to be a senator.”
Both Silverstein and state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch (D-Westchester), the bill’s chief sponsor in the Illinois House, say that the legislation establishes “civil rights” for homeless people.
“I certainly look at this as a civil right,” Welch said. “It’s very simple. But for the grace of God it could be you or I. If it were you or I, how would we want to be treated: fairly and not discriminated against. I think this bill accomplishes that.”
Welch said that the bill’s opponents claimed it protected rights that were already covered in other laws. However, he said that proponents wanted one all-encompassing document.
“Unfortunately, in the business we’re in, you have to legislate common sense,” Welch said. “A lot of this is just common sense. This is a taxpayer-, publicly-owned building and regardless of someone’s housing status, they’re entitled to be in this building just like you or I are. Unfortunately, discrimination happens every day.”
An early version of the bill also sought to help homeless people who were filling out a job application and who might, for example, list a shelter as their address.
Cushman said that Republican state Sen. Dale A. Righter of Mattoon thought the clause about those who were seeking jobs could place employers in a discriminated position. She said Silverstein took it out “because he felt there were enough good things in the bill.”
The bill also gained more traction when flooding last spring displaced a new set of people from their homes, she said. “They were not someone you would see on the street but victims of natural disaster that the legislators related to.”
Silverstein said that he seeks a bipartisan effort on all his bills and referred to “technical wording” Republicans had trouble with. He took it out, he said, because he wanted to be sure it was a bill everyone could embrace. “I didn’t want any ‘no’ votes. It sends a bad message, especially with a homeless bill of rights.”
The anti-discrimination measure initially passed the state Senate on April 25. The Illinois House voted for it 76-33 on May 10 and the Senate voted 48-7 on May 28 to ratify a House amendment that corrected a technical error in the original bill.
Advocates have not yet started implementation of the bill, Cushman said.
“It’s hard to say how often the bill will be used,” said Bob Palmer, policy specialist at Housing Action Illinois, another supporter.
Just the same, Palmer called the new law an “important counterbalance” against municipalities around the U.S. that are passing stronger laws against loitering and other activities often associated with homelessness but practiced by other people as well.
Puerto Rico passed a Homeless Bill of Rights in 2007 and during the first week of November La Fondita de Jesus in San Juan hosted an information session in which advocates tried to get data about rights infringement, said Glorin Ruiz Pastush. Three people offered to share information and only one actually did.
Since its Bill of Rights was signed into law in June 2012, Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless officials have distributed hundreds of water- and tear-resistant cards in English and Spanish that explain the law in simple terms. The cards also tell people to call the coalition to report their incident and how to record details such as date, time and badge number of the discriminator.
The Rhode Island Coalition web site distinguishes hate crimes – violent attacks on people because of housing status – from discrimination. The latter makes the Bill of Rights necessary because “news reports were constantly coming in from across the country about cities criminalizing homelessness: be it sitting in a park or receiving food outside. While homelessness was increasing and services aimed at ending it were cut, cities were reacting with an attempt to criminalize it rather than solve it.”
Connecticut has also passed a Bill of Rights and similar efforts at legislation continue in Baltimore, Missouri, Delaware, Minnesota and Madison, WI continue as part of a “growing movement,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. He said the measure may be reintroduced in Massachusetts, Oregon and California.
Typically, blue states with more liberal legislatures or governors achieve broader, more idealistic legislation than do red states, Stoops said. However, the National Coalition is working with advocates in Florida to introduce legislation in 2015 — despite its Republican-controlled legislature and executive mansion.
Stoops said he has not heard of civil suits being brought in Rhode Island, that the legislation is “too new to say it is working or making a difference.” Likewise, Illinois advocates need to start a public information campaign about these new rights, he said.
Homeless people who feel they have been wronged can file complaints with local or statewide human rights commissions. They can act on their own behalf or be assisted by pro bono attorneys, Stoops said.
Enactment of Homeless Bills of Rights is itself a symbolic and practical message, Stoops said.
“If I discriminate against you because you are a woman, you can file a complaint against me with the city human rights commission. I can be fined as an employer. Even having homeless people treated the same way as any other class is a step forward, even using the word ‘Homeless Bill of Rights’ sends a clear message that homeless people are important in our society.”
By Suzanne Hanney