The Power of Constituent Voice: The Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights

John Joyce, the author of the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights Law, passed away in February of 2013. Scarcely a day goes by when I don't miss my good friend, colleague, and kindred spirit. Since we recently marked the year anniversary of his passing, thoughts of him intrude several times each day.

The Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP), which was founded by John as an organization lead by and run by people currently experiencing homeless and those that had formerly experienced homelessness in a peer-to-peer advocacy model, was the lead organization on the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights. My organization, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), was honored to work alongside RIHAP and lend our capacity and expertise to the effort.

The journey we collaboratively made to pass Rhode Island’s law was a demonstration of the power of constituent voice in the socio-political process. It was also a validation of what it means to join with constituents experiencing homelessness on comprehensive advocacy efforts.

When the bill became law, I was surprised to see some colleagues across the country react to this accomplishment as a misguided or misplaced effort. Some wrote that we should instead be focusing on funding or creating housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. To them my response was and is: “We were…and we are!”

Moreover, I have asked colleagues who drew that conclusion the following question: “Don't you think there is value in doing both? Can’t we work to protect the civil rights and to prevent discrimination against our constituents experiencing homelessness while working toward more affordable and permanent supportive housing policies and funding?”

Indeed, at RICH we don't see the two as mutually exclusive for one simple reason…they aren't.

Our support – as an organization – for passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights in Rhode Island was seen as a commitment and dedication to what our constituents experiencing homelessness said was the most important need to be addressed in Rhode Island’s 2012 legislative session. And they most definitely noticed that commitment and dedication.

Furthermore, by highlighting their experiences with discrimination in our community, we all learned much more about what it is like for people experiencing homelessness in Rhode Island…much of that knowledge is uncomfortable to sit with and unsavory to acknowledge.

Advocates, service providers, legislators, and the general public all had to reconcile the truth of the homeless experience with their own conscience. One benefit was the passage of the first law in the nation to protect our constituents from certain discriminatory practices. We celebrated its passage because these protections can make real differences in the lives of our constituents. Yet, having the law on the books was not the only benefit.

The Homeless Bill of Rights Law provided advocates with a vehicle to uncover and expose what homelessness in our state is really all about. It has heightened the awareness of the issue among elected officials in the administration and in our General Assembly.

To be sure, much work remains to be done. At RICH we employ a movement building approach to our work. We seek to achieve change campaign by campaign and learn from and build upon the success of each previous effort. Looking back, the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign clearly marked an increase in the attention homelessness and affordable housing now get among decision-makers in our state.

John Joyce and his fellow advocates in the communities experiencing homelessness have taught us and held us accountable to our work by demanding that we focus on the most important stakeholder we have…our constituents. For that I am eternally grateful to him. And I offer my thoughts as a reminder, or validation, to my colleagues working to end homelessness. In John’s memory, let us clearly remember for whom we do our work.

Jim Ryczek joined the RI Coalition for the Homeless as its 3rd Executive Director in February of 2006. Since then, he has broadened the Coalition’s programs to include strategic communications as well as more expansive grassroots organizing and public policy advocacy. He is a founding member of the 1070 Partnership, an unprecedented professional collaboration among the affordable housing advocacy organizations in Rhode Island.

Prior to his position at RICH, Jim was Director of Field Education at the RI College, School of Social Work. He has also worked at The Miriam Hospital as a clinical social worker with Project Bridge, a nationally recognized Federal demonstration project through the Health Resources and Services Administration. As a professional social worker, he has worked with populations affected by homelessness, HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, disability, and economic issues related to poverty and oppression.