Legislation Law Prof Blog: The opportunity of the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act – how it came to be and how universities can ensure it creates social change

By the Health Justice Project

Joining the Legislation Law Prof Blog to discuss the passage of the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act are Rene Heybach, Jennifer Cushman, and Graham Bowman from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. 

The Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act (Homeless Bill of Rights) is the second state law passed in the nation to safeguard persons experiencing homelessness against discrimination in both the private and public arena due to the fact that they lack a consistent place to call home.

Disadvantaged and vulnerable people are discriminated against every day. However, there are few remedies available to the victim when the basis for the discrimination is not prohibited by the courts or legislature. The Homeless Bill of Rights states that “No person’s rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is homeless.”  By prohibiting such discrimination, individuals in Illinois now have a private right of action to sue both private individuals and state agencies that discriminate against them because they are homeless.

In addition, the Homeless Bill of Rights enumerates a number of rights afforded to individuals experiencing homelessness. Among those are the right to use and move freely in public spaces; the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property; and the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies.

Passing Illinois Bill or Rights for the Homeless Act required context, opportunity, and negotiation.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has a long history of advocating for the de-criminalization of homelessness and recently worked with Loyola Law School’s Health Justice Project on a comprehensive student-led study of the criminalization of homelessness in the spring of 2012.

During the spring of 2013, there was significant national media around the criminalization of homelessness and the response of the homeless advocacy community was gaining momentum – Rhode Island had already passed a Homelessness Bill of Rights and two other states were actively pursuing legislation. The atmosphere was ripe for legislation.

An Illinois state Senator initiated the legislation early in the session without the prompting of advocates, which meant that we did not have time to build community support ahead of time. At the same time, a similar bill was introduced in California that was receiving a significant amount backlash in the national media. Given this context, we decided to pursue a “quiet” course of advocacy as the members of the Illinois General Assembly largely focused on a number of other large high-profile issues.

Despite our efforts to keep the bill politically neutral, it still lacked necessary Republican support. However, when widespread flooding in downstate Illinois and suburban Cook County mid-session caused rural and middle class families to lose their homes, we used this opportunity to help more conservative legislators to relate to the issue of homelessness, particularly around the right to non-discrimination in maintaining employment. This aspect of the law was already on the books in Cook County and we argued that it should be extended to the rest of the state. Though, a couple of sticking points remained, including adding “homeless” as a protected class under the Illinois Human Rights Act. Not letting perfect be the enemy of good, we negotiated to amend the bill and ended up with a “feel good” bill with bi-partisan support that an influential Republican even spoke in support of on the Senate floor.

However, legislation does not automatically translate into social change.

Universities can play a unique proactive role in ensuring the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act is enforced by developing model policies that could be implemented by public and private entities to ensure that they are in compliance with the law. Law students and faculty could raise additional awareness and understanding of the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness by writing law review articles about the Homeless Bill of Rights and incorporating it into law school curriculum on individual rights. Universities can also partner with advocacy organizations on comprehensive research projects, like the one between the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Health Justice Project, to create resources that can assist advocates and allies deepen their understanding of laws and policies that affect homelessness and other vulnerable populations.

Rene Heybach is Senior Counsel at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Jennifer Cushman is a Policy Specialist at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. 

Graham Bowman is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.