Homeless have rights that merit protection

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During the Christmas season, attention is drawn to the less fortunate, and while that is welcome, the difficulties they confront are year-long in nature. That applies to the homeless of Massachusetts and Berkshire County.

This week brought the good news that organizations providing housing for the homeless of the Berkshires won renewals of more than $1 million in federal grants (Eagle, December 22.) Federal funding is largely targeted at urban areas with high rates of homelessness, but the lower funding provided to largely rural areas like Berkshire County make it difficult to address an issue that is very real in Western Massachusetts.

About three-quarters of the Housing and Urban Development funding will go to ServiceNET, which operates three programs in Pittsfield. Louison House in Adams, Family Life Support Permanent Housing in North Adams and Construct Inc. in Great Barrington will also receive funds for their important work.

In Boston, advocates hope that House Bill 1129, which calls for passage of a Bill of Rights for the homeless, will get through Beacon Hill before the two-year legislative session ends at the conclusion of 2016. Representative "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox, the bill's lead sponsor, delivered a letter this week signed by 60 colleagues to House Ways and Means Committee chairman Representative Brian Dempsey urging its passage. Berkshire legislators Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield and Gailanne Cariddi are among the co-sponsors of the legislation.

The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless is advocating passage, which is based on a 2012 Rhode Island law. It seeks to define the rights of the homeless so they cannot be discriminated against based on their status. It assures their right to equal treatment by municipal agencies such as police departments, freedom from discrimination in employment, the right to emergency medical care, the right to vote and assurance of a reasonable degree of privacy. The bill was reported favorably out of Ways and Means a year ago but went no further.

The Coalition has brought homeless residents to testify on the need for the Bill of Rights. A homeless mother of three daughters from Revere, citing both housing and medical discrimination, testified "I think that when people realize that you're homeless, they see it as a personal weakness."

Being homeless at a time when social safety nets are fraying under budget cuts is not a failing, and it is a fate that could befall many who could never imagine the possibility. The problem of homelessness is everyone's problem - now, and in the year ahead.




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