Homeless people in Illinois often run into roadblocks when they try to vote, apply for a job and access various public services due to their housing status.
But Illinois took a significant step earlier this month to help improve the situation of those without a roof over their heads by becoming the second U.S. state to enact a Homeless Bill of Rights.
Under the new state law, which took effect immediately, people cannot be discriminated against or denied basic equal rights merely because they lack a permanent address.
Bob Palmer, policy director at Housing Action Illinois, said the recent effort is also about ending the stigma associated with people who are experiencing homelessness.
“The one thing that everyone who is homeless has in common is that they can’t afford a home, and so homelessness is really an economic problem,” Palmer said. “To focus on somebody’s personal short comings is a diversion from the real problem.”
One of the rights now extended to the homeless includes the ability to maintain employment.
Employers often discriminate against people who don’t have a home, making it a challenge for those individuals to gain the financial footing necessary to emerge from homelessness.
The Homeless Bill of Rights will now make it easier for those without a permanent address to get and keep a job, which will help them get back on their feet, said State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D–Chicago), who sponsored the legislation in the Senate.
Under the measure, homeless people in Illinois also have the right to access emergency medical care and move freely through public buildings, spaces and transit systems. Other rights extended to the homeless include privacy of personal property, information and records, equal treatment from all state and municipal agencies and the ability to vote on the same basis as others in the state.
“Many of us who enjoy these rights take them for granted and do not realize that something as simple as not having a physical address would keep us from utilizing these rights,” Silverstein said in a statement.
Going forward, individuals who are unjustly denied any of these rights because they are homeless are allowed to take legal action and seek damages.
The Illinois General Assembly passed the measure, SB 1210, back in May, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed it on August 22.
Rhode Island was the first state to enact a Homeless Bill of Rights in June 2012. Connecticut passed its Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights this year and it will take effect October 1. Other states like California, Missouri, Oregon and Vermont are also considering similar measures.
Palmer said there are a myriad of reasons as to why people don’t have a permanent home, but the issue of homelessness boils down to a simple point.
“There’s people who have houses. There’s people who don’t have houses,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like you should be discriminated against just because you don’t have a house.”
A 2011 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that about 14,055 people in Illinois experience homelessness each night. The organization updated its “State of Homelessness” report (PDF) this August, which showed homelessness in Illinois increased slightly, by 1 percent, from 2011 to 2012.
Chronic homelessness, however, decreased 13 percent in the state during that time period, the report showed. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronic homelessness as long-term or repeated homelessness among people who often have a disability.
In Chicago, some 116,000 people were homeless during in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to a recent analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), which advocated for the new law. That figure is up 10 percent compared to the previous year, CCH found.
Many people in the state have become homeless “as a result of economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe and affordable housing, and a shrinking social safety net,” the legislation reads.
Over recent years, human services in the state that those in need rely on have seen significant cuts due to Illinois' financial woes, which now includes an underfunded pension system that is about $100 billion in the red and $6.1 billion in unpaid bills, the latter of which is expected to grow larger in coming months.
State Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside), who sponsored the legislation in the House, said adequate housing in Illinois is also a “continuing problem.”
“I will continue to fight for affordable housing options and vital services for people who are displaced, as well as residents who are struggling during these difficult economic times,” he said in a statement. “I am also committed to improving our local economy and creating more living-wage jobs so that everyone has an opportunity to obtain employment.”