Passing the Homeless Bill of Rights

In 2011, following a tough legislative session which saw the defunding of the Neighborhoods Opportunities Program (NOP, the state of Rhode Island's fund for supportive housing), advocates for Rhode Island's homeless community met to discuss what had gone so wrong and how a new strategy and focus could be created that would allow for success.

To this end, a legislative plan was created, and ultimately four pieces of legislation were as our priorities; a dedicated funding stream for supportive housing to replace the cut NOP, a homeless bill of rights, "Just Cause"/"Right to Rent" legislation (allowing those foreclosed upon to stay in their houses by paying rent, especially already renting tenants) and getting an affordable housing bond placed on the ballot.

We were fortunate to begin before the legislative session that the Occupy Movement had arisen, focusing the media on the issues of disparity and poverty in the United States. We were also fortunate that the local chapter of Occupy, Occupy Providence, was willing to reach out to us. Working with them and other direct action groups, a march and rally across the capital of Providence was staged in support of our legislative priorities in December of 2011, a month before the start of the legislative session.

All of our bills faced difficult paths in the legislature. The state was looking to make further cuts, while facing what was then a budget deficit. Furthermore, Just Cause was initially opposed by the banks, and the Homeless Bill of Rights was complicated by a situation involving sex offenders residing at the state's largest homeless shelter in the House Majority Leader's district.

Fortunately, the Homeless Bill of Rights was backed by two tenacious legislators; veteran lawmaker and chair of the Housing and Municipal Government committee Sen. John Tassoni and first-term Rep. Chris Blazejewski. Sen. Tassoni brought the bill to a vote in an expedient manner, for the General Assembly. However, on the House side, it stalled.

In the meantime, the Coalition and allies had been providing support. A weekly State House Soup Kitchen was held, during which those in need of a meal were brought right into the halls of power and fed by various organizations from schools to unions to service providers to religious groups and others. This had the twin effects of exposing legislators to the very community the bills would serve, while also showing the breadth and depth of support for the homeless community across the state.

Part of the method of recruiting organizations to assist us was to reciprocate support for their bills, leading to the Coalition to sign on to support bills such as payday lending reform. This led us to have a consistent presence at the Statehouse, a necessity in lobbying for bills. It also connected us with events that attracted elected officials. Most notably, we'd heard that a specific representative was blocking our bill in the House. One of our staff members ran into that representative and asked why he opposed the Homeless Bill of Rights. He denied that was the case. Thereafter, the representative no longer figured as largely in our discussions about opposition, we now had him on the record saying that he did not oppose the Homeless Bill of Rights.

Instead, we heard through multiple channels that police forces were unhappy with being singled out in the bill. They wanted revised language that actually broadened the reach of the bill; it now was to cover "state and municipal agencies" meaning all local officials could now be held accountable. We happily obliged.

We still had to wait for the state budget to be passed to see our bill passed. On the last day of the legislative session, a revised bill was passed out of committee and then in the last hours of 2012's legislative session, it passed the House without debate, and then was passed again in the Senate. It was time to celebrate.

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