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An Art Show and Panel Discussion on a “Homeless People’s Bill of Rights” took place on October 13, 2012 at the Richmond Art Center in Richmond.  “Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present” included a welcome by Gayle McLaughlin (Mayor, City of Richmond) and featured panelists Art Hazelwood (Curator, San Francisco), Paul Boden (WRAP, San Francisco), Boona Chema (BOSS, Berkeley), Jennifer Friedenbach (COH, San Francisco), and Yvonne Nair (Saffron Strand).

The panelists voiced their support for a Homeless People’s Bill of Rights for California, comparable to the landmark state legislation passed in 2012 in Rhode Island (2012 — S 2052, Substitute B):

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. A person experiencing homelessness:

  1. Has the right to use and move freely in public spaces, including, but not limited to, public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person, and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status;
  2. Has the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status;
  3. Has the right not to face discrimination while seeking or maintaining employment due to his or her lack of permanent mailing address, or his or her mailing address being that of a shelter or social service provider;
  4. Has the right to emergency medical care free from discrimination based on his or her housing status;
  5. Has the right to vote, register to vote, and receive documentation necessary to prove identity for voting without discrimination due to his or her housing status;
  6. Has 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; and the right to confidentiality of personal records and information in accordance with all limitations on disclosure established by the Federal Homeless Management Information Systems, the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and the Federal Violence Against Women Act; and
  7. Has 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.

Paul Boden helped crystalize the multiple civil rights issues of homelessness: “At its core, homelessness is a visible manifestation of racism, classism, criminalization of poverty, and commodification of the basic necessities which people need to survive.”

Yvonne Nair pointed out that every day Saffron Strand members suffer the consequences of discrimination because they are very poor and homeless. Also, a majority are African American: “What happens to Saffron Strand members shows that racial discrimination compounds homeless discrimination and vice versa. The Homeless People’s Bill of Rights can help ensure civil rights. The State of California should protect both the homeless rights of Saffron Strand members as well as their civil rights.”

Yvonne noted that the Homeless People’s Bill of Rights has become more important than ever because of the “changing face” of homelessness. She said that the Great Recession accelerated a rising tide of homelessness. Previously, the most obvious homeless were single adults, many of whom had substance abuse or mental health issues.

“Suddenly,” Yvonne said, “as the housing crisis hit and the recession deepened, there were more families and single parents with dependent children in the shelters. More homeless kids ended up on the streets. At the same time, there were fewer resources to help the homeless. It became obvious that existing homeless services were underfunded and not prepared to stem the rising tide of homelessness.”

The “continuum of care” to help the homeless, Yvonne added, has been slow to adjust to the changing face of homelessness. It has continued to focus mostly on housing and health care and not put enough effort into job training and employment services.

“At the same time, employers continue to discriminate against homeless people in hiring because the employers do not want to take a chance. Employers tend to believe very few of the homeless can be good employees.”

Homeless people who want to work should have the right to work, Yvonne stated. They should not be pigeon-holed in transitional employment jobs or other low-skill, low-wage jobs they did not choose for themselves.

“Our experience at Saffron Strand shows that if the homeless who want to work have the opportunity to build their skills, based on their individual talents and interests, they are more likely to achieve and sustain employment and be more productive and happier in their jobs.”

If we do not help protect all the homeless with a Bill of Rights, Yvonne said, then we are likely to see greater criminalization of the most vulnerable among the homeless: Mothers and kids swept off the streets, past the over-burdened social service system, and into over-crowded jails.

For “Hobos to Street People” click here.

For more news from Saffron Strand’s November 2012 issue of The Open Door, click here.

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