Equal Voice: Homeless ‘Bill of Rights’ becomes law in Illinois

Homeless people in Illinois gained new protections last week — including the right to keep jobs and vote as others — under a state “Bill of Rights” that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed and that received backing from housing advocates, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) reported.

Under the legislation, SB 1210, homeless people cannot be denied access to emergency medical care, public services and spaces, as well as transit systems because they lack housing or list the address of a shelter. The protections extend to a person’s right to privacy of personal records, information and property.

A person who experiences discrimination under this law and solely because of his or her housing status can pursue legal action and damages, CCH said.

“It is good for Illinois and good for the country to see us taking this moral test,” state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a key bill sponsor, said in a statement.

“How do we treat children? How do we treat the poor and disabled? How do we treat seniors?”

Specifically, an employer cannot discriminate against homeless people who use the address of their shelter or social service provider. Living in a shelter, on the street or in a temporary residence cannot disqualify a person from receiving care at emergency medical clinics.

Under the state law, a homeless person’s status also cannot disqualify that individual from being in a public place. And those without permanent housing in the state have the right to documentation which will allow them to vote in an election, CCH said.

Another key sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Ira Silverstein, explained in a statement that people should have “certain rights” that help them “get back on their feet.” Quinn called the rights under the law fundamental.

The bill signing occurred on Aug. 22 at an office of CCH.

The law will protect at least tens of thousands of people in Illinois. During the 2012-13 academic year, there were more than 116,000 homeless people in Chicago alone, according to CCH. That was a 10 percent increase compared to the same period a year earlier.

The Illinois state law is similar to a policy in Cook County, which has offered housing protection language in a human rights ordinance since 1993. In 1998, a public library released an employee from his job after it became known that he was homeless, CCH said.

Under that county ordinance, the employee filed a suit, regained his library employment and received compensation for lost wages and benefits.

Illinois is the second state in the country to approve this type of law. Rhode Island enacted a similar bill in June 2012, CCH said. Lawmakers in Connecticut also have passed a “Bill of Rights” for homeless residents.

Housing advocates in Oregon, California, Missouri and Vermont are working on similar types of bills, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization, works on public policies that seek to end homelessness. The group also focuses on community outreach and access to jobs, training and public schools. Watch a video about Shon Robertson, who was homeless and now works with the organization.