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Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 12:00 am

Homeless Bill of Rights: literally the least we can do

Homeless people have some new protections against discrimination under a law signed by  Gov. Pat Quinn yesterday. Public Act 98-516 creates a Homeless Bill of Rights, which sounds nice and might actually help someone. Problem is, it doesn't go nearly far enough.

The Homeless Bill of Rights is actually a great idea, and it does contain some useful provisions that may help homeless people avoid being taken advantage of or being denied their already-existing rights. It offers protection from losing a job because of homelessness, having your personal records released without legal authority, being denied emergency medical care, and more. It even specifies that a homeless person who is discriminated against can sue and collect damages. Make no mistake: those are all good protections.

 However, consider the law's introductory paragraph. (Emphasis is mine.)

It is the long-standing policy of this State that no person should suffer unnecessarily from cold or hunger, be deprived of shelter or the basic rights incident to shelter, or be subject to unfair discrimination based on his or her homeless status. At the present time, many persons have been rendered homeless as a result of economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe and affordable housing, and a shrinking social safety net. It is the intent of this Act to lessen the adverse effects and conditions caused by the lack of residence or a home.

Can you guess how that economic hardship, severe shortage of safe and affordable housing, and shrinking social safety net all came to be? If you guessed "through decades of spineless and shortsighted governance," you win today's prize! (It's a one-night, all-expenses paid stay in a fabulous homeless shelter. Congratulations!)

For several years, Illinois has cut spending on crucial social services that keep people from winding up on the street: education, mental health care, nursing care, housing and more. Even though Illinois' budget seems to be growing, the growth in spending comes from having to pay interest on money we borrowed in the past. That borrowed money was meant to make up for the fact that tax revenue hasn't increased as fast as inflation, which means the money Illinois brings in through taxes doesn't go as far toward providing services as it used to.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers also borrowed from the pot of money that was supposed to go into state employee pensions, and now that everyone agrees we have to pay that money back, the budget for services is even smaller. So, the much lamented income tax increase that took effect in 2011 didn't go toward providing services; it went toward servicing our debt.

The effect on homeless people is clear: less funding for services means fewer people get the help they need to manage physical and mental illness or weather financial storms. That means more people wind up desperate and in trouble with creditors or the law and ultimately end up on the street. Once you're on the street, it's extremely difficult to get back into a "normal" life of stable housing.

I'm glad that lawmakers saw fit to offer some protections for homeless people facing discrimination, but in light of the environment they created, it's quite literally the least they could do.

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