MONTPELIER — Advocates for the homeless testified in support of a Homeless Bill of Rights at the State House on Thursday.
They spoke in support of H.492, authored by Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Washington-Chittenden, who has twice submitted the bill, in 2017 and last year, to the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which has so far failed to pass the bill out of committee.
The testimony before the committee came on the same day as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Coalition Legislative Day at the State House. Dozens of advocates for affordable housing in Vermont testified before numerous committees, seeking more funding for affordable housing programs to reduce homelessness for individuals and families.
Efforts to address the need for more affordable housing have also brought calls for another $50 million state housing bond to build more affordable housing. In 2017, Republican Gov. Phil Scott approved a $37 million housing bond that will fund 800 units of affordable housing. Despite concerns by State Treasurer Beth Pearce about the cost of borrowing and impact on the state’s bond rating, legislative leaders say a new housing bond would be the most effective way to address the affordable housing crisis in Vermont quickly and the impact on the homeless.
In the meantime, the bill, 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 would 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.
Speaking on H.492 on Thursday were Montpelier resident Morgan Brown, and Ken Russell, chairman of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee.
Brown was homeless for 12 years from 1997 to 2009 before he was finally able to qualify for subsidized housing. But in emotional, at-times tearful testimony to the committee, Brown said he still suffers the trauma of rejection and ill-treatment when he was living on the streets and “tented out” in the woods.
Brown stressed that there were many people that were at-risk of becoming homeless.
“A lot of people are one paycheck away (from being homeless), “Brown said. “Something happens with the car, someone gets sick...”
Brown also spoke in support of compassion for the homeless. He noted that it was someone he met, through a chance encounter, who informed him that he might be eligible for housing vouchers that finally helped him escape homelessness.
“The question that I put to people is, ‘What is the one thing that helps people get housing?’” Brown said. “It’s relationships, not just connections, but relationships, meaningful, healthy, sharing relationships.
“Having someone involved and working with you, not taking over your life, not telling you what to do. This is why the peer street outreach (to the homeless) is so important,” he added.
Russell said efforts to address homelessness in Montpelier followed complaints last summer from downtown merchants that homeless people were blocking sidewalks and entrances to businesses and panhandling, scaring away customers.
“Another element pushing for this work was a group of folks, including unhoused individuals themselves, advocating for this population, seeking ways to help this population rise out of desperate situations,” Russell said, referring to the formation of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee late last year.
Speaking in favor of a Homeless Bill of Rights, Russell acknowledged that the homeless had to take responsibility for their behavior and actions but said they also deserved recognition of their plight, and support.
“They should have the same rights of free movement as anyone else, as well as the same responsibilities and accountability,” Russell said. “Our task force has responded in a way that considers the full rights of the homeless population and in a way that we feel will be most effective in addressing the concerns of the larger community.
“The work is one and the same. Yesterday, one of our task force members, formerly homeless himself, put it nicely: ‘We all have the same mission. Montpelier doesn’t want homeless people, and we don’t want to be homeless,’” he added.
Russell said that the efforts of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force included city-funded, part-time peer street outreach workers to connect with the homeless and connect them to support services to deal with mental health issues and substance abuse, transport homeless people to motels funded by vouchers when shelters were full, and provide them with “basic life-supporting supplies,” such as hand warmers, dry sleeping bags and easy-to-consume nourishment.
“We believe this is the best way of addressing many of the issues that cause grief to folks we hear from, and is the best first step in helping folks get to where they want to be in their lives, into housing, into services, or just staying alive for one more night,” Russell said.
The Homeless Bill of Rights would help to ensure protections for the homeless from being treated as “second-class citizens,” Russell said.
“It is clear as day that homeless people are discriminated against on the basis of their housing status,” he said. “It is clear as day that we use fear and prejudice when we are better served using moral clarity and courage. This clear statement of our better selves grounds us, reminds us of what is truly important.”
Speaking afterward, Stevens said he felt the testimony had put a human face on a population that many people misunderstood.
“I think the testimony made it real, what it’s like here, locally, not just for an advocate, but from someone who was formerly unhoused,” Stevens said. “I know it’s difficult sometimes to talk about your experience, so the courage that Morgan showed was really important.
“Now, it’s hard to say ‘no’ when folks aren’t invisible, and today, this made it visible in our committee and that kind of experience is priceless,” 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.