John Joyce Stood Up For Civil Rights With His Homelessness Bill Of Rights

My most vivid memory of John Joyce, the Providence, RI homelessness advocate who passed away last month at 50, actually had nothing to do with his tireless organizing for the rights of the homeless. It was summer 2011, at a rally in solidarity with the Pelican Bay hunger strike, and a contingent of activists was riding to the Rhode Island state penitentiary to protest inhumane conditions there. I asked John if he wanted to catch a ride to the jail. He thought for a minute, smiled to himself, and replied, “No thanks. I’ve already been there.”

John approached all his work with this calm candidness, a warm but unsentimental wisdom. Whether through an offhand joke like this, or in his direct lobbying work to pass the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights, he was frank but never abrasive, unrelentingly driven by a sense of justice that recognized human imperfection while always imagining human progress.

John’s death last month was a tremendous blow to homelessness advocates in Rhode Island and across the nation. He first became known around the state for his role in organizing Rhode Island’s tent cities in 2009. These were small outdoor homeless communities, often a place to find warm food, a cup of coffee, and the company and support of other homeless individuals. John himself was homeless at the time the first tent city was set up, and he eventually used the camps to draw attention to the extent of the state’s homelessness problem. After a long legal struggle in which the tent cities were evicted, John helped channel the solidarity they had fostered into RIHAP (the Rhode Island Homelessness Advocacy Project), a peer-to-peer organizing group that encourages homeless individuals to advocate for their rights.

To date, John and RIHAP’s legacy is the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights. The sweeping piece of legislation is the first of its kind in the country, explicitly protecting against discrimination due to housing status in employment, housing, and an array of social services. Crucially, it provides a more concrete ground through which homeless individuals can sue police, employers or other potential agents of discrimination.

While many of the practices explicitly prohibited by the bill were already illegal, homelessness advocates observed that many rights were not being respected in practice. Rhode Island’s homeless experienced daily harassment by police. (RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has previously sponsored less successful national legislation aimed at similar criminalization of homelessness issues, the 2011 RI Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act.) . The law’s passage was meant to address the immediate concerns those sleeping on Rhode Island’s streets — 4,400 people in 2010, and 1,100 on any given night.

While it is still early to gauge the law’s full effects, it has been peerlessly significant for ingraining the depth of Rhode Island’s homelessness problem into the state’s public consciousness, receiving wide praise from legislators and Governor Lincoln Chaffee. Furthermore, by extending housing status into a protected category, it helps expose how facially neutral laws might disproportionately affect those without roofs over their heads, which could lead to positive future litigation and more progressive legislation.

Indeed, there are already some major attempts to nationally fight laws that criminalize homelessness. While this approach to advocacy is no silver bullet, many advocates are optimistic that such special protections will help stabilize the day-to-day experiences of homeless individuals, and help enable more focused organizing around affordable and permanent supportive housing.

Unlike Rhode Island, multiple municipalities have increasingly issued draconian ordinances against basic acts of living on city streets — acts that are unavoidable for those without permanent housing. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s Criminalizing Crisis report, one-third of 234 major cities surveyed prohibited sitting or lying in public places, and even more have vague anti-loitering or anti-begging ordinances. Furthermore, between 2009 and 2011, these cities saw a 7% increase in ordinances against begging or panhandling, and a 10% increase in prohibitions against loitering in some public spaces.

To the extent that these laws lead to low-level arrests of homeless individuals, their enforcement is not only unethical but a massive drain on public resources. According to the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness, cities spend an average of $87 per day to jail a person compared to $28 per day for a shelter. Furthermore, fines and court dates associated with such laws create additional barriers to employment, housing, and other more meaningful steps out of poverty.

While these laws don’t specifically target homeless individuals, recent challenges to them have recognized that they disparately affect the homeless.

One successful legal strategy has been arguing that anti-begging or panhandling ordinances violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which holds that states cannot deny equal protection of their laws to any individual. Under this logic, these ordinances unjustly prohibit speech based on the content of speech (i.e., asking for money or food) or identity of the speaker (i.e., homeless individuals). Just over a month ago, the ACLU of Michigan defended a federal appeal to the overturning of Michigan’s state law banning begging in public spaces. In protecting their victory in federal court, attorneys for the plaintiffs — two homeless individuals from Grand Rapids, MI — maintained that begging is protected as speech under the First Amendment, and that they cannot be denied equal protection of their speech as homeless individuals.

Using a more subtle strategy, Steve Ray Evans, a homeless man in Salt Lake City, Utah, has alone brought numerous cases against different Utah municipalities, including a successful 2010 federal lawsuit claiming that Salt Lake City’s anti-solicitation law was overly vague, leading to selective enforcement. The law only prohibited citizens from being “on or near a roadway for the purpose of soliciting.” The effect of this vagueness was disturbingly specific: Though such language could technically encompass commercial leafleters advertising anything from free hot dogs to tax assistance, it was only enforced on homeless individuals. This selective enforcement is a hallmark trait of laws that have been struck down for unconstitutional vagueness.

Overturning discriminatory municipal laws in Salt Lake City and Grand Rapids are, of course, relatively small steps in isolation. Indeed, they barely address the structural sources of poverty. However, for the many homeless individuals who experience police harassment, frivolous criminal charges, and the denial of a place to go if the shelters are full, these protections are immediate, pressing concerns for day-to-day safety.

In the months after John Joyce’s tragic passing, homelessness advocates — both legislators with the power to pass good laws and litigators with the power to fight bad ones — should expand upon his vision of truly equal protection under the law.