Lenox lawmaker, supporters hope for action on homeless bill of rights

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PITTSFIELD — State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and supporters of proposed legislation to protect the rights of homeless people are hopeful a bill he is sponsoring will win passage this year.

"It was a late file last session," the Lenox Democrat said of the legislation — House bill H-1129. "But we hope it will get across the finish line this year."

Pignatelli said he has always been moved by the plight of the homeless, and is well aware that the image of a homeless person on a park bench in a big city does not tell the entire story.

"We know there is homelessness in the Berkshires," he said, adding the idea for the bill was suggested to him by a South County constituent as something other states already have adopted.

The bill seeks to guarantee the rights of people regardless of their housing status, such as when interacting with state or municipal agencies or officials, or with nonprofit organizations that provide services for homeless individuals or families.

That could mean as they apply for benefits or for employment, or seek access to parks or other public spaces or buildings — or seek medical care. Language in the bill also would protect rights to privacy in personal property and confidentiality of records, and the right to register to vote.

"It shows an intent on the Legislature's part that people should be treated with dignity," Pignatelli said. "Of course, they have to do their part too; there has to be common respect."

The Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, which supports the bill, provided written testimony from residents of homeless shelters when a hearing on the bill was held earlier this month before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Housing.

Kelly Turley, the coalition's director of legislative advocacy, said the bill was reported out to the House Ways and Means Committee, which will allow a full year for it to move through the process.

One woman who submitted testimony to the committee said in part: "I haven't been homeless very long, but just the interactions I've had trying to find help since then have been very inhumane. I work in human services and talk to a lot of clients and people with mental illnesses on the phone, so I know how you're supposed to talk to people. If I talked to someone who called my agency asking questions in the ways that some people have been talking to me, I would be fired."

A man wrote in his comments: "Back when I was on the streets I always made a point to dress in business casual, because people treated you differently. People I knew from shelters would get followed around in stores and things like that. ... It's always an assumption that you're homeless because you have an addiction or you're schizophrenic or something. I grew up in the projects, and people always say, 'I wouldn't figure you to be from the projects.' Just because I grew up in the projects doesn't mean I'm an idiot. Just because you're homeless or from a poor neighborhood doesn't mean you're a bad person. There is a pretty heavy stigma."

Pignatelli said the bill is based on one enacted in Rhode Island in 2012, but that several states, including Connecticut, have passed similar legislation.

The Rhode Island bill, "was very clean, and solid," he said, and would work well in Massachusetts.

While such legislation could lead to lawsuits filed over discriminatory treatment of homeless people, Turley said the experience in Rhode Island has been that complaints are resolved through mediation efforts. No lawsuits have been filed as a result of the law there, she said.

The issue of rights for homeless people is coming more to the forefront in part because the homeless population continues to grow, she said.

Pignatelli said increasing numbers of the "hidden homeless," or people with no permanent address sleeping on the couches of friends or relatives or otherwise getting by outside the shelter system, also is prevalent in Berkshire County.

"The basis for the bill of rights for those experiencing homelessness is to put into one place, protections and regulations to ensure basic dignity and opportunity to change their circumstances," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who is a co-sponsor of the bill. "One of the provisions most important to me is the assurance that whether one has an address or not, he/she can still exercise his/her right to vote."

The proposed legislation states: "No person's rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is experiencing homelessness."

The bill then lists "the right to use and move freely in public spaces," such as parks, sidewalks, public buildings or public transportation; the right to "equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies;" the right to emergency medical care; the right to vote or to register to vote; the right "to protection from disclosure of his or her records and information provided to homeless shelters and service providers to state, municipal and private entities without appropriate legal authority;" the right to confidentiality of personal records, and the right to "a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence."

The rights as generally described in the bill "shall serve the same purpose as a statement of legislative intent that will help guide the department and other state and municipal agencies to promote the rights of those experiencing homelessness," according to the legislation.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.

On the Web ...

The complete text of the legislation may be viewed at https://malegislature.gov/Bills/189/House/H1129.


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