State homeless bill of rights proposed

DOVER — Homelessness can be insidious. It can sneak up, and suddenly, someone who never imagined he or she would be without a residence is now living on the streets, struggling to survive one day at a time.

Once an individual is homeless, it can be hard for him or her to get back up on his or her feet.

Lawmakers are trying to change that.

Legislation from Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, would create a homeless bill of rights, making it unlawful to discriminate against the homeless based solely on their lack of housing.

The measure, Senate Bill 49, would codify protections for homeless Delawareans trying to worship, get medical care and receive basic privacy.

House manager Ivey Wilson, right, talks with residents Robert Groff, left, and William Smith while watching TV at the Walt Bagley Hall in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“The homeless person’s bill of rights is about fundamentally establishing certain equality in our society for people who are homeless but also very much shining the spotlight on how hard people work and what they’re going through,” Sen. Townsend said.

“Homelessness can be a very misunderstood situation, and whether you’re talking about people who are homeless being able to vote, whether you’re talking about people who are homeless having their personal property be respected, whether you’re talking about them being able to sit on a bench and enjoy lunch the way anybody else would, we just want to make sure there is fundamental equality in our community.”

The bill defines homelessness and seeks to allow individuals experiencing such a condition to seek temporary or permanent shelter without fear of being denied and to be granted the same privacies a non-homeless person would have.

House manager Ivey Wilson, left, and Weekend/Evening cook Paul Adamson place dinners on the diningroom table at the Walt Bagley Hall in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“The point is, people who are homeless, they have belongings and possessions and so … basically, there’s the equal expectation of respect for your property,” Sen. Townsend said.

The homeless can vote, and the bill would guarantee that right. Individuals without a home can still register to cast a ballot by completing an application and provide identification and an address where they receive mail.

The bill is a re-write of legislation introduced in the prior General Assembly and a continuation of an issue that dates to before that.

In recent years, both Dover and the state have ramped up efforts to combat homelessness, especially among veterans, and it has paid off. Officials announced in November Delaware had “effectively ended” homelessness among veterans.

Delaware has a very low rate of homelessness: According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, .19 percent of state residents are without a dwelling, a rate bettered only by Wyoming and North Dakota.

As a number, that’s about 1,070 Delawareans living on the street or in shelters — and about 1,070 too many, advocates say.

Ivey Wilson, superintendent of Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing’s Walter Bagley Hall, called the bill “wonderful.”

Resident Robert Groff checks on his laundry at the Walt Bagley Hall in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mr. Wilson said he has not only heard stories about the homeless being discriminated against but has also experienced them — he was once homeless, in fact.
“Homelessness is serious,” he said. “People don’t want to see it, but they don’t want to do anything about it.”

Many homeless individuals suffer from mental-health issues and drug addiction, and some experience homelessness because of criminal convictions. Sexual offenses make it especially difficult for men and women to find housing or employment, Mr. Wilson said, noting he differentiates between those found guilty of crimes and those given a plea bargain.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, three states have homeless bills of rights.

Under the bill, anyone who is found to have unfairly discriminated against a homeless Delawarean can be fined, with the Human Relations Commission and Division of Human Relations having oversight.

A not-yet-filed substitute version of the bill will correct a few errors, and Sen. Townsend is hoping to have it heard in committee soon.

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