Official Rhode Island's response to the homelessness problem has been uninspiring, on the whole.
But in the just-completed legislative session, something remarkable, if little-noticed happened: Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to pass a homeless bill of rights.
The measure gives the homeless the right to "move freely in public spaces," including sidewalks and parks.
The homeless, the measure affirms, have the right to vote and the right to equal care in hospitals. Employers, under the law, can't discriminate against a potential employee, or existing employee, who claims a shelter as a residence.
The law, according to a statement from the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty, "stands in stark contrast to the national trend we're seeing toward the criminalization of poverty."
A November 2011 report from the Washington-based organization found a growing number of municipal ordinances cracking down on panhandling and camping or loitering in particular public places.
The National Law Center is embroiled in a lawsuit against the city of Dallas, now, over an ordinance that places restrictions on where charitable groups can distribute food to the homeless.
John Joyce, the formerly homeless co-director of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, says he was sitting on his couch eating popcorn and drinking soda when he drafted the first version of the bill with co-director Megan Smith.
Joyce and Smith worked with the ACLU to hone the bill. And there were a few compromises along the way. They dropped a provision declaring a right to housing. And after police objected to a line that spoke, specifically, to equal treatment by law enforcement, they replaced it with a more generic — and far-reaching — line on equal treatment "by all state and municipal agencies."
Joyce says the measure was born of the indignities the homeless face on a daily basis — shuffled out of the library, their personal property thrown away. "When you don't have a home, you are looked down on, you are stereotyped," he says.
Homeless advocates say they don't intend to use the measure as a legal cudgel — though they'll take action where required — but as a way to start conversations with police chiefs and emergency room doctors and business leaders.
They also hope, in the long run, to start a conversation with the nation, to spur similar legislation elsewhere.
Karen Jeffreys of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless says her organization, which advocated for the bill, has already received calls from advocates in San Francisco and Washington and from a wire service for the nation's network of street newspapers.
Rhode Island, too often small on homelessness issues, is looking rather large at the moment.