Why Rhode Island's Proposed Homeless Bill of Rights Doesn't Work, And Alternatives

Legislators in Rhode Island are currently contemplating a statutory bill of rights which would be specifically applicable to the homeless population of the state. While I am of course aware that there are many, many other factors at play aside from economics here, I think that analyzing the bill through the lens of economic analysis can help us to understand why the legislation is unlikely to pass and also how some of its goals might otherwise be met. First off, some background on what the Bill of Rights would do might be helpful. From CBS Connecticut:

The bill would specifically prohibit law enforcement, health care workers, potential landlords or employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. John Tassoni, said most Americans probably aren’t aware of the daily discrimination faced by homeless people.

Tassoni said he’s heard stories about homeless people being kicked out of libraries even though they had library cards, rejected for jobs or apartments, or told to leave a public park just because they were homeless. He said he sponsored the bill to make it clear that homeless people must be treated just like anyone else.

The bill was passed by the state Senate earlier this month and currently awaits a vote in the House. With no vote scheduled, it is possible that it will go unaddressed before lawmakers adjourn for the year, which will likely be next month. According to the CBS piece linked to above, lawmakers in that chamber are concerned over implementation and enforcement of the sweeping bill.

This is one angle I wish to address. But first, I think it would be helpful to set out some rules of engagement in discussing this topic. As I do so, I will fully admit that I am mostly likely veering a bit from Senator Tassoni's intent. Though I haven't spoken to him, I believe that Tassoni is interested in broad homeless rights. While that could certainly be labelled a valiant cause, I would like to focus instead on some of the effects of what Tassoni and others have identified as discrimination against the homeless, i.e. lack of employment and housing opportunities. To do this requires an understanding of the different elements of the homeless population.

Some percentage of the homeless population is homeless due to the deinstitutionalization of mental health services, disabilities, and factors such as drug use. On the other side of the coin of course are the many individuals (particularly in these tough economic times) who are homeless because they are unemployed. Both populations have requirements, and those requirements can vary greatly. In not recognizing this fact, I believe Tassoni's bill is a bit misguided, or maybe ineffectively broad.

Individuals in the first group, those who likely would have been institutionalized back in the 1950's, are unfit for many employment opportunities, and present special problems for society. They require society's assistance, and it is just a fact of life that sometimes this assistance comes from law enforcement or those who work in public safety roles. It seems that the bill's breadth and ambiguity leaves too much uncertainty for law enforcement and public safety officials who are just trying to do a very difficult job. This is, of course, the concern of lawmakers noted above who would probably like to see the bill die a quiet death.

This is also an area where compassion and economics match up. If those tasked with interacting with and overseeing the homeless are unable to do so, it doesn't benefit anyone, including the homeless. It could in fact also put a huge drain on society if lawsuits come into play for what most people would agree are normal police interventions, or if avoidable disturbances impact commerce. In essence, allowing public officials to continue to interact with and liaise with these individuals without fear of legal issues is beneficial. Of course part of this logic is the fact that tort law and any laws applying to police interactions with citizens still apply when it comes to the homeless. This is an essential element of the discussion, and one of the reasons I am comfortable with focusing on the other main segment of the homeless population.

This second segment of the homeless population, those who are homeless due to a lack of employment, present much different problems. These individuals don't require so much attention from public officials; they often just require a second chance. This is because becoming homeless leads to a cycle which causes homeless individuals to remain that way; employers and landlords often discriminate against those with no set address, or an address easily identifiable as belonging to a shelter. Rather than producing and creating demand for products, which they are clearly able to do, they are consuming services and creating a need for tax dollars to be allocated to homeless services. Whether or not one agrees with this use of taxpayer funds, it is nonetheless a clear and clearly measurable cost that could be avoided.

And avoiding this cost wouldn't be very onerous. In a stroke of the pen which could greatly benefit citizens and the local economy, lawmakers could restrict employers' and landlords' abilities to discriminate due to housing status (what I understand is a very significant problem). This would directly impact the types of problems which I identified above and would protect homeless, past and present, who could be productive members of society. Additionally, it would avoid handcuffing law enforcement and public safety officials who are trying to do their jobs and would allow for the reallocation of scarce resources on those homeless who are unable to work due to mental illness or disability rather than a spotty housing history.

And eliminating the ability to discriminate is but one solution once the key problem (the actual avoidable effects of homelessness) is identified. I have also read about solutions in other places, like providing P.O. boxes for homeless individuals looking for employment. I have heard of cell phone programs as well as phone answering services for those looking for work. Though these are costs to society, they are clearly outweighed by the benefit of having individuals living healthy, productive lives. I am sure there are others, but the main point is that there are solutions which exist that could have a real impact that have a better chance of being implemented than a blanket bill of rights which misplaces resources and restricts efforts to support the homeless who need it.

I tried to find something in the Rhode Island code which could be used to accomplish these goals (Tassoni would house his bill in Title 34, Property), but there doesn't appear to be anything on housing-related discrimination in hiring (admittedly, I didn't look over any agency rulings; however in any case, since the issue exists, it clearly needs to be addressed more specifically than it has, if ever). Then I turned to the broader code to look for statutes that anti-discrimination legislation could latch onto. Perhaps an amendment to Chapter 28-5 covering fair employment practices would be a possible avenue to take. In addition, those who would hope to address the housing specific areas of the issue could piggyback on Chapter 34-37 under Fair Housing as Tassoni does.  I am sure that there are other avenues which could be taken by the creative lawmaker as well.

I identified two separate homeless populations above, those who are mentally disabled and those who have merely fallen upon hard times. If homeless rights legislation is truly intended to address the ethereal concept of homeless rights as separate from the rights of anyone else in society, I believe that it is destined to fail. However, if it were refocused to concentrate on employment and housing discrimination as the addressable effects of one kind of homelessness, I believe it could be more successful as an approach that could have impacts far beyond the state of Rhode Island.

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