MONTPELIER — A Homeless Bill of Rights will be the topic of testimony at the State House Thursday and Friday.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Washington-Chittenden, has twice submitted the bill, in 2017 and last year, to the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, without it being approved.
Given the recent increased scrutiny and concern about the plight of the homeless, Stevens said Wednesday he is hoping the third time will be the charm for the bill in the current legislative session.
H.492 seeks to establish “a homeless bill of rights and prohibiting discrimination against people without homes.”
The bill seeks to ensure that the homeless are afforded the same constitutional and civic rights, have equal rights to public services, and do not face discrimination while seeking or maintaining employment, accessing medical services or enrolling their children in school. The bill also seeks to protect the confidentiality of victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking who are homeless, and the ability to access supports and services.
The bill wants ensure that 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.”
Under the bill’s provisions, an aggrieved person would also have the right to petition in civil court for appropriate relief against damages suffered and costs incurred as a result of violations of their rights.
Stevens noted that the issue of homelessness came up two weeks ago when the Legislature passed a resolution, declaring Jan. 15 Homelessness Awareness Day.
The resolution noted that the 2019 Point-In-Time Count survey, done on a single night last January, found that there were 1,089 Vermonters without secure housing, 23% of whom were children.
It also noted that the 2019 Housing Opportunity Grant Program reported that the average shelter stay for the homeless was 52 days, the longest in more than 18 years. And the Out of Reach 2019 report noted that a wage of $22.78 an hour would be needed to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Vermont, the resolution added.
In Washington County, a report by the Vermont Interfaith Action of Central Vermont, “Ending Homelessness in Washington County by 2020” noted that in the past four years the homeless population of Washington County had risen from 8% to 13% or from 123 to 141 people — an anomaly compared with the rest of the state which has seen the homeless population decrease.
“The issue of homelessness, obviously, is the focus of our early work during the year, simply because it’s cold,” Stevens said. “But we’re trying to create a protected class, in this case, for the homeless and a bill of rights that says that people who are experiencing homelessness are entitled to be viewed with the same tolerance as anyone else is and that they should be treated the same way that anyone else (is). Given their circumstances, they should not be discriminated against.”
Stevens said the difficulty of trying to address the issue was difficult because for most people, the homeless are an “invisible” population.
Stevens said costs related to dealing with the homeless are complicated by issues, such as raising the minimum wage, providing affordable housing and funding mental health and substance abuse support services to reduce the problem.
“It’s something that we should work on to ensure that we reduce the stigma, first ... to simply say that they should not be treated negatively just because they’re homeless,” Stevens said. “Criminalizing poverty is not where we want to go.”
Stevens said family homelessness had grown “immensely” since the Great Recession.
“That’s a completely different flavor of homelessness that we don’t acknowledge, or we don’t even know it exists,” Stevens said. “We know that it’s a chronic problem and there’s not one solution and people are doing whatever they can to survive.”
In response to an increase among the homeless in the state’s capital, Stevens noted resistance in the community to create a shelter. The only alternative to a shelter is to providing affordable housing, he said.
In the meantime, Montpelier relies on services provided by the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, a year-round shelter with 30 beds that oversees two winter overflow shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds and at the Bethany Church in Montpelier with 20 beds. The shelters are supported by about $500,000 in state and local funding annually.
Stevens said he is concerned the Scott administration is taking property transfer taxes from the sale of property out of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund, which helps to fund affordable housing programs while conserving open land. The administration has used the money to fund other programs although it did include $4.6 million in the capital fund for housing programs, according to VCHC.
At today’s hearing, scheduled to start at 11.15 a.m., testimony will be given by Morgan Brown, a Montpelier resident who was homeless for several years; and Ken Russell, chairman of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee.
“I’m going to say that in all the work that we’ve done on the task force, we’ve looked at the full dignity of the folks on the street,” Russell said. “The bill of rights would challenge us to see homeless people as having equal rights (compared) to the rest of us.
“I think it’s an important challenge to consider these folks with their full human dignity, in spite many of the issues that might come with the population,” he added.
On Friday, at 1 p.m., the committee will hear testimony from Joseph Gainza of WGDR’s “Gathering Peace” program; Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services; Falco Schilling, advocacy director for the ACLU of Vermont; and Erhard Mahnke, coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.