Verna spent five years sleeping on the streets after she lost her manufacturing job.
Now living in her own Fair Haven apartment, she’s still haunted by the constant stress, anxiety, and humiliation she felt whenever city police asked her to move from a bench or a sidewalk grate or a stretch of grass downtown where she had managed to fall asleep.
On Monday afternoon, Verna added her voice and her story to a broader call by local homelessness advocates seeking to codify a city “bill of rights” for New Haveners without a home.
Around 40 homeless people and affordable housing advocates gathered with Verna outside City Hall for an hour-and-a-half protest in support of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and the Resolution to Decriminalize Homelessness. Both proposals would enshrine in city law a homeless person’s rights to enjoy public space and pursue employment, housing, and healthcare opportunities without facing discrimination.
“It’s so good to be able to lay your head somewhere warm,” Verna said on Monday. But those who do not have stable housing, she said, shouldn’t face discrimination just because of that lack.
Both proposals are currently before the Board of Alders Human Services Committee of the Board of Alders. Committee Chair and Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr. said he is waiting for the city’s Corporation Counsel to finish a legal review of both proposals before holding public hearings and voting on the items.
The Bill of Rights enumerates board goals, as does the resolution, which seeks to have officials and citizens “respect” homeless rights.
“Each year Mayor Harp and the Board of Alders work to ensure the City of New Haven remains sympathetic to issues faced by homeless residents, and to the concerns of homeless advocates,” city spokesperson Laurence Grotheer said in an email statement on Monday afternoon. “New Haven’s annual budget appropriates more than $1 million for homeless services, through which the city’s non-for-profit service partners provide shelters, transitional housing, meal programs, counseling, and other assistance programs. The mayor and the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel have been tracking this initiative as it works its way through the legislative process.”
Monday’s protest was led by members of Housing Not Jails, a homeless-rights initiative of the Connecticut Bail Fund that is also part of the larger affordable housing advocacy group, the Room for All Coalition.
“Homelessness is not a stigma,” said Sade, a homeless New Havener who served as the MC for the event. “Everyone is at risk of being homeless.” She cautioned that many New Haveners are one paycheck or one injury or one mistake away from losing their homes and sleeping on the streets.
Her fiance and fellow Housing Not Jails organizer Donny enumerated the various rights included in the proposed legislation, which builds off of a statewide Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights that Connecticut’s legislature adopted in 2013.
The first right is the right to enjoy public space without being harassed by the police.
“No matter where we’re at,” he said, “we get questions about everything: What you doing? Where you going? Why you here? It’s not right.”
He said the bill also calls for freedom from employment, healthcare, and voting discrimination just because of a person’s housing status.
“We can’t vote ‘cause we homeless,” he said. “Got people on parole and probation who can’t vote.”
He called for the right to the protection of homeless people’s personal property and privacy, saying that police officers continually seize and search his and other homeless people’s bags on the Green. “We can’t walk 10 feet without having cops harass us about our bags,” he said.
He said homeless people should be able to sit on the Green for as long as they’d like, so long as they are not causing any trouble.
He and Sade said that homeless people should have access to safe shelters that allow for entire families to stay together.
“There are family shelters, but men cannot go,” Sade said. “There are men who would love to be with their families. Why can’t they be with their families? Why should they have to be split up?”
Donny added that homeless people are all too often barred from housing opportunities because of background checks that disqualify those with criminal records.
“Please, help us get this Bill of Rights passed,” he said. “Everybody else has them. Why cant the homeless has them, too?”
In addition to Donny and Sade, a half-dozen other currently or recently homeless New Haveners shared their stories to the larger call for legislative action.
“I was working on my job, got hurt, the bills added up, and I ended up on the streets,” said Verna, a 35-year-old from Waterbury who lost her job making brake pads and ended up on the streets of New Haven. She now lives in an apartment in Fair Haven thanks to the help of the local social service provider Columbus House. But, she said, she still shudders at the shame and anxiety she felt living on the streets and shuffling from place to place to sleep each night.
Alik, a 40-year-old New Havener who has been homeless for two years, said he spent four months in the Whalley Avenue prison because of a charge of assaulting a police officer during an altercation on the Green. He said he was ultimately released when police body camera footage showed that he was not at fault in the interaction.
“We need a new system,” he said, “Cause this system’s broken.”
Homeless rights activist Bealton Dumas compared the proposed bill of rights to a sledgehammer that will knock down barriers of discrimination and stigma currently preventing city homeless people from living lives of dignity as they try to secure stable housing.
“Don’t stereotype,” he said. “Don’t pass judgment.” Everyone is just a small slip away from homelessness themselves, he said.
The Connecticut Bail Fund’s Brett Davidson also pleaded with those listening to not stereotype or negatively profile someone just because they are homeless.
“We should have a system where everyone has a roof over their head at night, and no one has to live in fear of law enforcement,” he said. “But that’s not the reality that we live in right now.”
So as long as there are homeless people in this city, he said, they deserve to have the same basic human rights that people with houses have, and those rights should be protected by city law.
Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights
Below is an excerpt from the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights. Click here to download the full proposal.
Every person, regardless of their housing status, has the following rights:
a) The Right to Enjoy Public Space. The right to use and move freely in public spaces, including sitting, lying down, sleeping, or resting in public spaces, both individually and while assembling in groups, which shall include but not be limited to public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation, and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person or groups and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status;
b) The Right to Employment Fairness. The right not to face discrimination in seeking, obtaining, or maintaining employment due to the lack of a permanent residence or a permanent mailing address, or because the mailing address is that of a homeless shelter, or a homeless or social services provider;
c) The Right to Medical Care and Dignity in Meeting Basic Needs. The right to medical care, free from discrimination based on housing status. The opportunity to perform basis needs, such as to defecate, urinate, and to access clean water and other living necessities, in public locations and facilities, which includes public parks and buildings, with dignity and relative privacy under hygienic circumstances and conditions, in clean, safe, highly accessible facilities, free to all persons regardless of housing status;
d) The Right to Vote. The right to vote, register to vote, and receive any documentation required by law to prove identity for voting, without discrimination due to housing status;
e) The Right to Personal Property and Privacy. The right to protection of personal property includes: 1) the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her personal property to the same extent as personal property in a permanent residence; and 2) the preservation and safeguarding of un-housed peoples’ property, including personal identification and records, including documentation of government benefits, legal proceedings, and familial records;
f) The Right to Personal Safety. The right to personal safety, which shall include protection from violence based upon housing status and effective law enforcement response to such incidents; 2) the right to temporary shelter during extreme (hot or cold) weather; and 3) the right for families to stay together in shelters.
g) The Right to Sit. The right to sit, rest or sleep in temporary shelter, such as any legallyparked motor or recreational vehicle or a self-erected shelter (e.g., a tent), as permitted by law, for the purpose of immediate survival of persons, and their pets, without harassment by law
enforcement officers or others; and 2) the right to reasonable notice before encampments illegally created are swept.
h) The Right to Social Exchange. The right to give and accept food, beverages, and shelter, in public spaces or elsewhere (with permit, as others are required, where applicable), and to connect persons experiencing homelessness with organizations that provide shelter or transitional
housing and social services, such as mental health or substance abuse counseling, medical care, and employment assistance. The right also to panhandle in public spaces, and to communicate to others in other reasonable ways for other similar purposes.
i) The Right to Equal Treatment. The right to equal treatment under the law by all New Haven municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status or source of income, and equal protection of the laws and due process by law enforcement and prosecuting agencies
and the courts;
j) The Right to Housing Fairness. The right to obtain housing free from discrimination including based on housing status, source of income, arrest record, conviction, or lack of a fixed or permanent mailing address;
k) The Right to Housing. The right to safe and affordable emergency and/or transitional shelter and permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, because housing is a basic human right, as stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the
right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services,and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Resolution Concerning The Decriminalization Of Homelessness
Below is an excerpt from the Resolution Concerning The Decriminalization Of Homelessness. Click here to download the full proposal.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Board of Alders of the City of New Haven, Connecticut affirms the rights of those experiencing homelessness and condemns the criminalization of homelessness.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Alders calls upon all City officials, employees, and private citizens to respect the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness, to include the review of police protocols and responses to ordinances affecting those who are homeless, with
the involvement of the Chief Administrator’s Office and appropriate New Haven Police Department personnel in the development of any changes, revisions or recommendations regarding such ordinances.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Alders calls upon the Mayor of New Haven to issue a moratorium on the enforcement of laws criminalizing homelessness, pending the aforementioned review of ordinances affecting those who are homeless.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City Clerk communicate this resolution to all City Departments, the Courts, the Governor and Attorney-General of the State of Connecticut, and the Connecticut Congressional delegations.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the provisions of this Resolution shall be severable, and if any phrase, clause, sentence or provision of this Resolution is declared by a court of competent jurisdiction to be contrary to the the Constitution of the United States or of the State of
Connecticut or the applicability thereof to any agency, person, or circumstances in held invalid, the validity of the remained of this Resolution and the applicability thereof to any agency, person or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.
Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch Monday’s protest.