The Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance (MHSA) respectfully submits our testimony in favor of House Bill 695: “An Act providing a homeless bill of rights.”
MHSA is dedicated to one mission – ending homelessness. While evidence-based housing and service models – including rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing – have led to significant progress in addressing homelessness in communities across Massachusetts, the Commonwealth has not yet brought these models to the scale necessary to truly end homelessness. In the meantime, there are still people living on the streets and in shelters without access to the housing and supportive services that they need. As long as this reality of homelessness exists, we must not criminalize homelessness through policies or practices that target people experiencing homelessness for existing in public spaces or pursuing life-sustaining activities.
The homeless bill of rights outlined in House Bill 695 emphasizes that a person experiencing homelessness has the same rights and privileges as any other resident of Massachusetts and that a person’s rights, privileges and access to public services may not be denied or abridged solely because that person is experiencing homelessness. On the one hand, we are hesitant to speak about the concept of homeless rights, since it would be unfortunate to further institutionalize homelessness by suggesting that people experiencing homelessness are a separate class of people. However, the existence of policies and practices that criminalize homelessness makes it clear that House Bill 695’s message – that a person experiencing homelessness has the same rights and privileges as any other Massachusetts resident – is necessary.
Policies and practices that target people existing in public spaces who have nowhere else to go only exacerbate homelessness by leaving individuals with criminal records that present even further barriers to housing and employment. Similarly, when individuals experiencing homelessness face employment discrimination because they can only provide a shelter address on an application, it makes it even more difficult for these individuals to exit homelessness and find stability. House Bill 695 provides clear guidance for state and municipal agencies, as well as agencies contracting with the state, to ensure that people experiencing homelessness are allowed the rights, privileges and access to public services that any other resident of Massachusetts would have.
We acknowledge that this is only the beginning, and that it is critical that we bring evidence-based housing and service solutions to scale in Massachusetts if we are truly to end homelessness. Yet, at the very least, we must be able to agree that all residents of Massachusetts – regardless of housing status – should have the rights and privileges outlined in House Bill 695. MHSA respectfully requests that the Joint Committee on Housing report the bill out favorably. Thank you for your time.