Homeless bill of rights under discussion by lawmakers

MONTPELIER — Three policy leaders visited the Housing and General Military Affairs Committee on Thursday to testify about a bill that has been dubbed “the homeless bill of rights.”

The aim of H.492 is to prohibit discrimination against people without homes. Supporters insist it won’t prevent private business owners from protecting their space and activities, but at least two of the witnesses who testified expressed some reservations.

Austin Davis, the government affairs manager for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, asked questions regarding the bill that are likely on the minds of most Chamber members.

“We’re wondering what this proposal would have for interaction with owners of businesses dealing with things such as loitering or behaviors that make it more difficult to operate a business,” Davis said.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury and lead sponsor of H.492, said the measure would allow business owners to retain all current options for dealing with disruptive behavior.

Michael Bielawski/TNR

HOMELESS VS. BUSINESS: Austin Davis, the government affairs manager for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, tells lawmakers he wants to make sure businesses, as well as the homeless, are protected.

“This is about erasing the stigma that comes along with it in providing certain protections. … This legislation is not to excuse behavior in the public sphere,” he said.

Stevens further explained that a store owner should not be able to tell someone to leave solely based on the person being homeless. However, if the objection is for some reason not related to living-status, then the owner can take action.

Rep. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, who who is both a lawmaker and a business owner, weighed in.

“My understanding of all these conversations basically was, whatever laws that are on the books that exist now in terms of behavior and that sort of thing would still hold,” she said. “It would be in terms of service, treatment — that’s when this comes into play in terms of just assuring people that it doesn’t matter where you are coming from, the treatment that you get should be the same as anyone.”

Davis then asked what happens if someone who is homeless tries to sleep at an establishment.

“My interpretation is that if it is interrupting the normal course of business [action may be taken] — again it falls to the behavior of the individual. But it doesn’t give carte blanche for homeless people to say, ‘Oh I’m homeless, I can go sleep anywhere I want,'” Stevens answered.

Davis suggested that the goals of this legislation are already covered in parts of the existing law. He also told the committee there are existing efforts to help the homeless.

He gave the example of a pilot program in Brattleboro called Work Today. It’s still gathering grant funding before it’s operational, but this is expected to gain traction this spring.

Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, expressed her concerns about the bill, including its status in regards to Title 1 law.

“We are concerned as was mentioned earlier, why this particular legislation would be put into Title I,” she said. “Title I talks about common law — it talks about the open-meeting law, the public records law, and access to interpreters of persons who are dealing with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. It doesn’t actually talk about any of these kinds of issues.”

Horn said she hopes towns will not be prevented from dealing with aggressive panhandling.

“Municipalities do need to maintain the authority to adopt ordinances that address the time, place and manner of soliciting that are content mutual and do not burden people’s abilities to exercise their free speech rights,” she said.

She also said there’s a part of the bill that allows an aggrieved person to take legal action. She cited a section on Page 4 of the bill.

“A person aggrieved by a violation of this section may bring an action in Superior Court for appropriate relief, including injunctive relief and actual damages sustained as a result of the violation, costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees,” it states.

Horn said she would like to know who an aggrieved person is going to sue, and what situations account for a grievance.

Wendy Morgan, staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, suggested homeless persons need more help getting into homes.

“A landlord may lawfully reject a homeless applicant because he or she has a negative rental history or caused damage to an apartment, but homelessness alone should not be a permissible basis to exclude a person from housing,” she said.

Davis said that the ultimate policy objective should be to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

“I have to say, I find it kind of sad that we have to defend anyone’s right to sleep outside in front of a business,” he said. “I would hope that we can find the resources to be committed to not having people sleep outside, but I guess that’s a whole other conversation.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North. Send him news tips at bielawski82@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/The Accent and Michael Bielawski/TNR

7 thoughts on “Homeless bill of rights under discussion by lawmakers

  1. Just another UNNeeded law to protect harassing panhandlers….Maybe
    if this is all Stevens has he should be in another profession like
    social services instead of law maker…

  2. Is there a bill in the hopper for the ” self reliant citizens bill of rights?”

    Do we have any rights? or are we just the money bags for the Progressives!
    The credit card, their ATM

  3. Where is the part about determining why they are homeless and requiring them to get help fixing the problem? That should be the first section of such a bill. Then and only then, do you force other people to do better by the homeless!

  4. Here we go again. While there is a great deal of talk about the “homeless bill of rights”, there are very few if any specifics. Sure there are assurances that businesses will continue to be able to protect their ability to conduct business in an orderly manner, but thus far, “homeless bill of rights” is only a phrase. What does it mean???? What’s included that does not already exist in the original BILL OF RIGHTS????

    • Correct, what of the Bill Of Rights that legislators ignore, violate at will with no consequences, would they add a new right and then treat it as the doormat, what in their past would lead one to think differently.

  5. The aim of H.492 is to prohibit ” discrimination ” against people without homes,
    the only discrimination is that our legislators let this fester, basically, they promote
    it !!

    I see plenty of homeless, panhandlers, mentally ill on the streets with there signs
    why ?? There are jobs everywhere for those that want to work, there lies the rub,
    ” Want To Work”, I see plenty of able-bodied people ….. Lazy, would be my guess
    and those who have a mental issue should be hospitalized !!

    If any of these so-called Homeless are Veterans, shame on all of us, from reading
    this bill has all the buzz words, so why not call it what it is a ” Sanctuary Bill ” that’s
    the agenda !!

    Liberals never fix a problem, the just write bills to ease their minds.

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