“Homeless people have apprehension or downright fear that by putting down the address of a homeless shelter when filling out a job application, they could be denied employment. There are a number of people in the homeless community who work and live in a shelter at the same time. There is a fear that people will lose their job if their employers find out,” said Nate Fox, a project supervisor for the Faces of Homeless Connecticut chapter to Mint Press News.
The Connecticut state legislature took the first step last week toward eradicating employment and housing discrimination against homeless people by passing SB 896, known as the “Homeless Person’s Bill Of Rights.”
It will provide legal protections against a bevy of discriminatory practices including police harassment and denial of public services. It’s likely not the panacea that will eradicate homelessness altogether, but homeless advocates like Fox hope that it will spark a much needed national movement to end homelessness.
“I think the big picture is that the homeless bill of rights does have some potential to have some immediate impact on people’s lives, but it isn’t the solution. It’s the first step in having that much broader conversation about what homelessness is, why it is and what we can do to tackle it,” said Fox, who is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.
Homelessness and discrimination are problems that exist in all 50 states, with 633,782 people experiencing homelessness across the U.S. according to the latest statistics published by the National Coalition. Because it is difficult to track homeless populations, the number is likely much higher, made worse by the housing bubble that has lead to the foreclosure of at least 4 million homes since 2007.
Protecting vulnerable populations
“We started thinking and working on the bill in April 2012. It was at that time I met an individual from the Hartford community who was homeless and suggested doing a homeless bill,” Fox said. State Senator Terry Gerratana (D-New Britain) agreed to sponsor the bill in the legislature where it gathered enough support to be passed.
On paper, homeless people will now enjoy many of the same rights afforded all citizens in Connecticut, including the ability to move freely in public spaces such as public sidewalks and public parks without harassment or intimidation. The bill also provides equal opportunities for employment and equal access to emergency medical care.
Fox says that he was inspired to push for the bill after a similar piece of legislation was passed into law in Rhode Island June 2012 — the first legislation of its kind in the nation.
“When I heard about the Rhode Island homeless bill of rights I thought, ‘that’s right up our alley.’ I heard from a lot of people they have experienced all kinds of discrimination,” said Fox.
Advocating for the homeless is more than operating shelters and soup kitchens, it is about seeking to end the types of discrimination that keep individuals in a cycle of perpetual poverty.
“Until Rhode Island passed the homeless bill of rights last year, it was legal to discriminate against homeless people — in employment, housing and public accommodations. Right now it is legal to discriminate against homeless people throughout the country,” Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless told Mint Press News.
It appears to be catching on like wildfire as other states have similar laws working their way through the legislative process. “When the Rhode Island bill passed, it made people think about homeless communities. Our bill got defeated in California but they are going to reintroduce it in January. Legislation is being proposed in Delaware — in Illinois the legislature has passed a bill of rights that still has yet to be signed into law,” Stoops said.
The Connecticut bill now awaits Gov. Dan Malloy’s (D) signature. If SB 896 is signed into law, it will go into effect October 1, 2013.
Homeless folks are already protected by federal anti-discrimination laws, but are being bolstered by a network of state laws that homeless advocates believe are necessary to improve the situation. “The system we have — some things are federal matters and some things are state matters. Things like discrimination in housing or discrimination in employment, I mean, there are federal laws about it but really most of the important enforcement kind of work on that happens at the state level,” Steve Berg, Vice President for Programs and Policy National Alliance to End Homelessness, told Mint Press News.
A new civil rights struggle
The key impetus for bills in Rhode Island and Connecticut are actually coming from the homeless themselves, who are demanding a change in conditions. “There’s a number of local homeless-led advocacy groups that are working to give voice to the homeless population. Part of advocacy is coming from homeless themselves who say, ‘I can’t sleep in the park, I can’t panhandle, employers discriminate against me if they find out that I live in a shelter,’” Stoops said.
It’s a struggle that some describe as a longstanding civil rights issue made far worse during the Reagan administration when funding for public housing and homeless shelters were reduced or eliminated altogether.
It was during the Reagan era that the National Coalition for the Homeless and other groups got their start. “The time period that we are in now begins in the mid-1980s due to drastic budget cuts by the Reagan administration. We started to see more men than single women and families. Many of the secular shelters opened up in the early 1980s to deal with that issue,” Stoops said.
Understanding the day-to-day
Contrary to the well-worn tropes portraying homeless as “lazy bums” and “freeloaders,” many have jobs but have turned to shelters when financial calamity, relationship problems or substance abuse forces them onto the streets or into shelters.
Holding a job is something that an individual with a permanent address might not think twice about, but it becomes a major issue when some employers discriminate in hiring practices. If an individual puts down the address of a homeless shelter on a job application, it can immediately disqualify him for employment.
Fox told Mint Press that one homeless man he worked with went into a shelter because of the dissolution of a personal relationship and had a series of financial setbacks, struggling to get a security deposit for an apartment.
Throughout this time he held steady employment in retail, usually working until 9 p.m. most days. Because the shelter he was staying at required that people be back by 6 p.m., they tried to investigate to verify that he was actually employed and had a legitimate excuse for staying out until 8 or 9 o’clock at night.
“They wanted to contact the employer to verify his employment. He was afraid of what they might say if they did call the employer. He said ‘forget it, I’m leaving,’ took his stuff and ended up finding another place to live. I think that is a violation of privacy. It’s something that if you weren’t homeless that you wouldn’t be asked to do,” Fox said.
There is also discrimination in medical treatment, particularly at hospitals and emergency rooms.
“People going to the emergency room have been mistreated or skipped over when they are in the ER. In Rhode Island, they did an entire study on the experiences for homeless people when they go to access medical services. It showed time and time again the homeless mistreated in ER and hospital settings,” Fox said.
The big question: Will these new laws end this type of discrimination in practice? They’re not likely the ultimate solution, Fox admits, although it’s a step in the right direction.
Others are more hopeful, “The people behind the laws being passed are local homeless advocacy groups. I can promise you that they won’t get something passed that won’t work. We don’t worry about implementation. We have been monitoring in those states to make sure the law is being implemented,” Stoops said.
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