By Guy Page
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist asked on Twitter Dec. 2, “Okay, Vermont, when are you going to pass a homeless bill of rights?” To this question Vermont HBR advocates could very well answer, “We tried to pass one in 2018 and it didn’t go so well. But maybe 2020?”
Rhode Island became the first state in the union to pass a homeless bill of rights, in 2012. Passed with advocacy support from the ACLU and several housing and homeless coalitions, “the bill prohibits discrimination based on housing status, stating, ‘No person’s rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless. Such a person shall be granted the same rights and privileges as any other resident of this state,’” according to the website of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSA) of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
The House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee held hearings on H.412, the homeless bill of rights, in 2018. But despite strong support from chair Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), the committee wavered after hearing concerns from business and municipal advocates that it might empower panhandling and loitering in business districts.
A similar bill, H492, was introduced this year and referred to Stevens’ committee. It was sponsored by Stevens, Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie (D-Hartford), Martin Lalonde (D-S. Burlington), and five lawmakers from Burlington: Barbara Rachelson (D), Selene Coburn (P), Johannah Donovan (D), Jean O’Sullivan (D), and Mary Sullivan (D). Stevens is the only member of his committee to sponsor the bill.
H.492 would protect homeless people’s access to housing, employment, medical care, schooling for their children, and other public benefits. It also would legally protect panhandling: “No person shall be subject to civil or criminal sanctions for soliciting, sharing, accepting, or offering food, water, money, or other donations in public places.”
Homelessness is not just a Burlington-area problem. Recent articles in local newspapers in Brattleboro, Middlebury, Montpelier, St. Johnsbury and St. Albans all paint a similar picture: the homeless are here, some services exists, and the community is often divided on what’s best for all concerned.
Not surprisingly, one response to solving the problem of homelessness is to create more housing and require that at least some of the units be dedicated to homeless and/or low income Vermonters.
Yet taxpayer-funded housing is expensive. A new housing project for mixed income residents on Taylor Street in downtown Montpelier had s building cost of $256,000 per rental unit. A similar project on Main Street in Montpelier cost more than $300,000 per unit.
As Stevens, a strong backer of housing for the homeless, told Vermont Daily Chronicle recently, “the cost of providing (building and funding) affordable housing…. is different than housing that is affordable.”
At present, the Vermont ACLU seems to be fighting for homeless people’s rights on the local level. Several days ago, it achieved a favorable settlement with the City of Burlington on behalf of a homeless man whose property was confiscated and destroyed by the City of Burlington, according to a Dec. 4 press release.
It’s significant that this lawsuit was filed in federal, not state, court. If Vermont had a state law, it’s not unlikely the ACLU would have pressed its case there. In other states, the flurry of lawsuits predicted by opponents of state laws hasn’t happened, claims one advocate on the SAMSA website. Advocacy organizations appreciate the law’s value even without contentious lawsuits – at least, for now.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports at the Vermont Daily Chronicle.