Is a Homelessness Bill of Rights Just a Bill of Goods?

The political center has become a precarious place for lawmakers who want to embrace compromise. Extreme views from both ends of the political spectrum seem to dominate policies these days.

This same political tug-of-war is also occurring in the world of homelessness. While many cities around the country are passing anti-homelessness laws to push people experiencing homelessness out of their communities, one state is actually passing a law that gives people living on the streets the right to be there. Our country's response to homelessness is dominated by extremes.

The state of Rhode Island is on the verge of passing a "Bill of Rights" for people who are homeless. The law would give people who are homeless the right to access public sidewalks, parks, and public buildings, and protect their right to keep their private belongings.

Sure, this is a compassionate response to people who not only struggle on our streets, but also must endure the threat of being legally cited for trying to find a safe place to sleep outside.

But is protecting people on the streets from legal citations really going to help them long term?

If you wander east of Los Angeles' downtown business district, you'll find yourself smack in middle of the city's infamous Skid Row, home to thousands of people who call the streets home.

You might run into Jerome, a man who has been homeless for years. Employment is a foreign word to him, and abusing substances is his primary recreational activity. He camps, literally, on the sidewalk in front of a small toy factory with his belongings stacked three feet high.

Jerome is a fixture in this neighborhood because homeless advocates have successfully defended his legal right to be there, even though business owners have fought City Hall to get him to move along.

Sarah, on the other hand, lost her job a year ago because of the downturn in the economy. She spent six months unsuccessfully looking for work while using up her limited savings. She ended up sleeping in her Toyota Celica in a tiny neighborhood on L.A's Westside, because it seemed like the safest place to go.

Unfortunately, her housed neighbors were not too happy that she was living in her vehicle near their homes, so Sarah was cited for illegally parking on the street overnight. After a few more citations were slapped on her windshield, the city towed away what remained of her dignity. She ended up sleeping in a park, which the city has recently also made illegal.

Ironically, the right to sleep, eat, and store possessions on the sidewalk gave Jerome the means to sustain an unhealthy existence, while Sarah struggled to keep her car and find a safe place to stay without the threat of law enforcement swooping down on her.

There needs to be a balance between criminalizing homelessness with ordinances that persecute people who are forced to live on the street, and giving those same people the right to do whatever they want without any consequences. We need to find the middle ground.

Jerome needs to transition out of his self-destructive lifestyle, while Sarah needs to be legally protected until she can find a path out of homelessness.

A Bill of Rights would help Sarah during her transition, but would merely enable Jerome.

A more powerful Bill of Rights for people who are homeless, however, would consist of one simple right: the right to housing. This does not mean the right to a condo, or the right to a luxury apartment...but the right to a safe place to call home.

This means giving people who have become homeless access to transitional housing if they just need a temporary "way station" until they can get back on their feet, or the right to a permanent housing unit if their disabilities limit their ability to make it on their own.

Let's call it the Right to Housing Bill.