Rhode Island made a landmark move in late June, when Governor Chafee signed into law the first ever Homeless Bill of Rights, which protects the civic rights of homeless in the state. Warwick native John Joyce spearheaded the new law, which is being lauded nationally by homeless advocates.
Joyce never expected to be homeless. It was a string of difficult situations and a lack of work that left the Warwick native out on the streets. Joyce had been working in construction until 2006, when unemployment and failed relationships left him without a roof over his head.
“It was difficult,” he said. “I didn’t like to use the shelter systems.”
So in 2007, Joyce began advocating for the homeless. In 2009, he started the tent city near downtown Providence.
“It was a statement,” he said, to get the attention of people in power.
And his work did get attention. Soon Joyce was collaborating with the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, speaking at events and discussing ways in which service providers could more effectively aid the homeless.
“It was a good fit for me to get to know them,” he said.
Soon Riverwood Mental Health Services offered Joyce a paid position as a homeless outreach coordinator, but he was hesitant about the offer. Joyce said it wasn’t the idea of a job that put him off; it was the idea that he might have to stop doing the work he was doing on the street.
“I felt like I was giving up to the man,” he said.
Still, he took the offer, and was soon able to get himself off the streets while still working in advocacy. Now Joyce works to help other homeless gain access to services and appropriate housing.
Recently, Joyce began collaborating with Meghan Smith on the Homeless Bill of Rights. Smith, a Brown University student, co-directs the Homeless Advocacy Project with Joyce.
As the pair drafted the bill, Joyce said he drew inspiration from his own experiences and combined them with what he learned from researching a similar bill in Illinois.
Once the bill was drafted, the pair shopped around for sponsors at the State House, and Sen. John Tassoni and Rep. Christopher Blazejewksi stepped up to the plate.
Once they had their sponsors, Joyce said he was busy advocating for the bill at the State House, as were representatives from the various homeless service providers and agencies.
Joyce said the State House Soup Kitchens, which began in February and have been taking place weekly, also helped to get the attention of the General Assembly.
“It’s not just a statistic,” he said of homelessness. “There is a face and a name to that face. That made an impact.”
The key components of the bill allow homeless to use public transportation and spaces, like parks, and maintain the right to vote. The Homeless Bill of Rights also seeks to help homeless secure jobs and prevents employers, the government, police, health care workers and landlords from discriminating against people because of their housing status.
“It’s about basic civic rights,” he said. “Homelessness is not what you see in Hollywood. And it’s not what it was like 30 or 40 years ago.”
Joyce doesn’t believe we’re in a recession; he believes we’re in a depression, which makes it harder for homeless men and women to get off the streets. He hopes the Bill of Rights will get more people to closely examine homelessness, though he’s not sure it will be a quick fix to ending it.
“If you look at housing in Rhode Island … you have to work two-and-a-half weeks in one week in a minimum wage job to afford [fair market value] rent,” he said.
In the future, Joyce said there needs to be a dedicated funding stream for affordable housing. If politicians and advocates collaborate in the right ways, he said, Rhode Island can make significant strides.
“We can be the first state to end chronic homelessness,” he said. “That’s my vision.”