Homeless Bill of Rights: Is it Enough?

by Mary Pappalardo, Writing Intern

In June of this year, Rhode Island’s state legislature passed what is known as the Homeless Bill of Rights. The language of the bill makes it clear that discrimination against the homeless population is unacceptable. This is an important move for Rhode Island, especially in a time when throughout the country other states are making it more and more difficult to be homeless. Since then, pushes for similar bills have been seen in other states like California and Oregon. Pittsburgh is a city with its own distinct homeless community. Statistics from 2011 suggest that in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, the homeless population is estimated to be over 2,000. Are we a city that could use a Homeless Bill of Rights? With the growing attention the issue of homelessness is getting, what are the viable ways of addressing it in Pittsburgh?

The Homeless Bill of Rights focuses most specifically on nondiscrimination. We can think of discrimination as a storekeeper turning away a homeless person based on their appearance, though this is not entirely discriminatory. Private businesses are allowed to place restrictions such as “No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service” in the interest of preserving their clientele; while it may seem harsh, they are within their legal rights. The kind of discrimination that Rhode Island’s bill focuses on is the limited access to services that comes from homeless people’s lack of an address.

“Maybe you’re required to have an address in order to get access to something. An abstract example would be: in order to access the soup kitchen, you’d have to show an ID card. So the government, in creating its soup kitchen funding act could say, well we don’t want everyone in society thinking they can get a free meal so they have to have a shelter ID card. It creates such a burden,” says Linda Tashbook, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, who has worked with homelessness for over 20 years. ID requirements like this hypothetical one would make day to day practices substantially more difficult for the homeless population, because to obtain an ID, proof of residence is often required. This kind of discrimination is the main focus of Rhode Island’s bill.

What Tashbook has noticed in her years of work, though, is that Pittsburgh as a community is perhaps more receptive to its homeless population than other cities tend to be. There are countless organizations throughout the area that are working collaboratively to care for those who are displaced from their homes. There are big shelters, like those run by  East End Cooperative Ministries and Saint Joseph’s House of Hospitality that offer both meal and accommodation services. Pitt Dental School has provided dental care—toothbrushes, cavity fillings—for homeless people who can’t afford visits to the dentists. There is a program at Western Psych called the Neighborhood Living Project that works specifically with members of the homeless community with mental disabilities, offering a range of services including lawyer referrals to ensure that their rights are not denied. One of the most effective programs in Pittsburgh is Operation Safety Net, a groundbreaking street-medicine program. By seeking out those living on the streets or frequenting drop-in centers and shelters, Operation Safety Net brings the medical care to the homeless, and eliminates the difficulty of access by making regular rounds to a number of locations. The service workers in programs like these form a network of providers who work together to try to provide the best care possible. Tashbook recalls a story of one man who was known by this network . He had been living out of his car for a few years, but after serious flooding, he essentially lost his home. Because caseworkers knew about him, though, someone reached out to him to assure him that they would find him space. He went to live in a shelter, and one of the caseworkers there told him about a new pool of federal money that had become available for housing subsidies and that he might be eligible for. This man went through the interview process, and sure enough he was eligible; they were able to get him into his own apartment.

“There are just a lot of caring people either based through our hospitals or our universities that are reaching out and doing things with the homeless all the time,” says Tashbook.

One of those people, Joe Lagana, founded the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF), which works to support the education of homeless children and youth in Allegheny County. HCEF has done extensive work throughout Allegheny County, setting up learning centers, funding mini-grants for partner organizations, and countless other initiatives.

Like Tashbook, Lagana notes that Pittsburgh is ahead of the curve when it comes to relations with its homeless population, “I do believe we have made more progress than other regions of our size and complexity.”

Neither Tashbook nor Lagana believe that this higher level of engagement excuses Pittsburgh from its obligation to work harder for this typically marginalized community, though. But, perhaps a Homeless Bill of Rights focusing on discrimination is too broad a piece of legislation. While it marks a turning point in the way the issue is addressed in Rhode Island, the bill does not tackle all of the problems that exist. Rhode Island’s bill came at a time when the state engaged with its homeless community much less effectively than it needed to. A homeless shelter in one of the biggest cities in Rhode Island couldn’t offer meal services, but due to demand for beds, people needed to be present at the shelter by late afternoon. This meant that people who went elsewhere for their meals often could not get a bed; it was widely known among the homeless population that depended on the shelter that you had to pick that day whether you wanted food or a place to sleep. The shelter had too many people depending on it, and not the kind of government regulation that would allow them to rectify the situation. Had there been a law in place that required shelters providing accommodation to also provide food, the shelter might have been able to apply for grants to help fund a meal program. Specific legislation tailored to hone in on localized issues is the only way to ensure an extensive and thorough change in policy towards homelessness. Despite a large network of service providers, things cannot improve comprehensively without a change in the system that has perpetuated homelessness.

Lagana’s work with homeless children has made the gaps all too clear for him. “Officials from the schools and related agencies are not clear, passionate or aware of the homeless population…where they reside and what their educational needs are. In most cases, when homeless children show up at school, the educators are not aware that the student is experiencing homelessness,” says Lagana

This lack of engagement on the part of the administrations is a clear illustration of the kinds of issues surrounding homelessness in Pittsburgh. Lagana has worked with lawmakers to begin providing for homeless youth in state legislation. In July 2012, Governor Corbett signed Act 123 of 2013, a senate bill on which Lagana worked with legislators that sets up a task force to study Pennsylvania’s homeless youth and their educational needs. It is important that legislation like this is being passed, because the effect of homelessness on the development of a student is dramatic.

“A large percentage of children experiencing homelessness have developmental delays or special needs as a result of instability caused by multiple changes of housing. Each change of school requires a major adjustment on the part of the student to new classmates, teacher, and curriculum. Not all, but many of the these children have literacy issues and thus cannot keep up with their classmates, get frustrated, and stop going to school regularly. They usually do not represent themselves well in classes and do not get the attention that would help them to accelerate. Their brains are often traumatized by the instability,” says Lagana.

If we believe that education is the great equalizer, then it is clear that we must be concerned with making sure that all children have access to the best opportunities for education possible. Regardless of housing status, all children should feel safe and provided for in their school setting, and specific legislation addressing this issue is a step forward. Tashbook has also noticed the need for specialized laws. She points to the practice of homeless sweeps in Pittsburgh; public officials for a long time had been clearing out areas populated by homeless people, without warning, and disposing of whatever they found there. The Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU negotiated a settlement with the city in 2003 that set strict guidelines for homeless sweeps: the city needed to provide a full week’s notice of the impending sweep by posting in the area to be cleared for seven full days and also they agreed that whatever they collected in the sweep would be kept in storage for 30 days in a location that would be publicized at the site of the sweep. This past year, Tashbook has interacted with two different people who have experienced two separate incidents of sweeps in which these guidelines were not followed.

“That is an example of a place where city code needs to provide particular protections for homeless people, because doing it through a court case didn’t work. They’ve slacked off, they’re not fulfilling their obligations, and now homeless people have to bring a big case in court to enforce their rights and they don’t have the wherewithal to do that. So more targeted laws of this type make sense to me,” says Tashbook.

Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights is a symbolic step in the right direction, and it should be praised for that. However, Pittsburgh’s own situation illustrates the need for a more widespread reform to the way we think about and work with our homeless populations. We need targeted and focused policies that make the system work for those who find themselves without a home. There are myriad reasons that push people into homelessness, and we must address these issues as well. What we cannot allow ourselves to do is grow complacent or neglectful, because it is only in a concerted group effort—like the work being done by Lagana, Tashbook, and the network of service providers that already exists—that we can make the kind of difference necessary for impactful change.


Special thanks to Linda Tashbook and Joe Lagana for their contributions to this post.