10 Lessons for Others About the Homeless Bill of Rights


1. Work to build the world you want to see, even if you're being ignored.

After the bill's passage, we wanted the Governor to sign it publicly. However, his administration failed to respond to our requests. So instead, we scheduled an event at the State House where our constituents would sign it, and asked the Governor to come, along with state and national politicians and advocates. We also ensured that the press was informed and prepared to come. In the end, the Governor came.

2. Plan a focused but flexible strategy, and review it consistently.

We met prior to the legislative session to review our various strategies and campaigns, preparing to implement them. But even though we developed a strategy that involved eight different campaigns, we ultimately table half of them for the 2012 session after first attempting them. We stuck with the State House Soup Kitchen, Adopt-A-Legislator (personal lobbying and relation-building of specific lawmakers by constituents), canvassing the House Speaker's district, and some tours of the largest shelter for key legislators.

3. Play an insider game and an outsider game.

Due to our large coalition of organizations, we were able to draw on a wealth of different tactics. We had both strong lobbyists (all of whom were already advocates around homelessness and poverty rather than hired guns) talking with legislators, and we also had our organizations mobilizing their grassroots to provide public pressure.

4. Build constituent power. "Constituent voice" is necessary, but not sufficient.

In our Government Relations committee, we insisted that organizations representing constituents, people currently or formerly homeless, participate in proposing and debating strategic options as well as executing our strategies. Our most visible campaign, the State House Soup Kitchen, not only served constituents, but was constituent created.

5. Stay on strategy.

While our strategy was flexible, and we were assisting other social justice organizations, there were constantly temptations to get stuck on tactics rather than strategy. Many organizations know that there are plenty of people who suggest that your organization takes a specific tactic. But for a small organization, these well-meaning suggestions can be deadly, putting valuable time and resources into something which might not help. When someone offered us a suggestion that we felt we would not be able to adequately do or could distract us from our strategy, we asked "can you organize it?" We've found this has the effect of determining who is willing to go the extra distance; as well as who isn't.

6. Work to build sustainable relationships that reflect your core values.

Rep. Doreen Costa, a Republican elected on a Tea Party platform, ultimately didn't vote for the Homeless Bill of Rights. But through open dialog with her, we learned that she cared about homelessness (and supported the State House Soup Kitchen where some of her peers were distressed by it), and her feedback and criticism proved invaluable in revising the bill to make the bill successful. Just because someone isn't a supporter, doesn't make them an opponent.

7. Understand your local conditions.

We have a strong collective knowledge of local history, as well as shared political and social connections. These were all necessary to navigate the bill out of committee. A national organization trying to get this passed that didn't understand how bills move (or don't move) in Rhode Island would have been extremely unlikely to succeed.

8. Frame the bill within a social justice context, not a homelessness context. Recruit allies accordingly.

By moving beyond focusing solely on bills that would directly impact or prevent homelessness, and focusing on legislation that aimed at creating a more just and equitable Rhode Island, such as restricting payday lending, we were able to connect with allies we wouldn't otherwise have met and had not worked closely with previously; such as labor unions.

9. Don't seek a fight, but don't be afraid to get into one.

Despite the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights, it was a bleak session for us. For another year in a row, the legislature refused to fund supportive housing, and the housing bond was being entered at merely a third of the amount we were fighting for; while all of our bills appeared to be stalled in various committees. We made a decision that the situation required that we would go down swinging, even if it meant taking risks or breaking laws to be effective.

10. Work to represent government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

In our review process, we noted that we navigated what can be a pretty undemocratic political system. But just because we succeeded doesn't mean that we want to keep winning this way. At every step in the process, we tried to get as many citizens involved as possible, especially those who would be most affected.


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