Homeless people shouldn't be harassed or discriminated against simply because they lack a permanent residence. They shouldn't be subjected to unreasonable searches, be forbidden from using public transportation or be kept out of public parks. They ought to have the same rights as those with homes.
But will a law proposing a "bill of rights" for Connecticut's homeless do much to ensure they receive equal treatment? Unfortunately, no.
Such a proposal is making its way through the General Assembly, with the backing of advocates for the homeless. The bill is well-intentioned, but mostly it's an unnecessary feel-good measure that, if passed, will do little to improve the lot of the state's estimated 4,000-plus homeless people.
Even proponents of the measure admit that laws presently on the books forbid discrimination on the basis of housing status. The problem is that sometimes police, shelter workers and others don't follow those laws. Advocates argue that requiring each municipality to conspicuously post a list headed "Homeless Person's Bill of Rights" will raise public awareness and bring better compliance.
It's a nice thought. But a new law is unlikely to have that effect, any more than neighborhood signs saying "Drive slowly, we love our children" really help to eliminate speeding.
For practical purposes, it doesn't matter much whether the bill of rights measure becomes law. It carries no costs, and the only extra work it requires is the distribution and posting of the list of seven rights.
But as some have pointed out, the real problem isn't that the rights of homeless people are violated. The problem is that there are people who lack basic shelter.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness has called for addressing the "systemic problems that lead to crisis poverty," including a shortage of affordable housing, incomes that don't pay for basic needs and a lack of appropriate health services. Tackling those issues is much more difficult — and costly — than voting for a bill of rights; it is also a much better way of addressing the true problems of homeless people.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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