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Politics & Government

Bill of rights for people experiencing homelessness stalls in state legislature

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

A proposal to create a bill of rights for people experiencing homelessness failed to clear the Delaware House of Representatives' judiciary committee on Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover), sought to prohibit discrimination against people based on housing status on various fronts, including when applying for housing or using public spaces. Some other states, including Rhode Island and Illinois, have adopted similar protections for unhoused people, but Lynn’s would have made Delaware the first to have an enforcement mechanism by allowing discrimination complaints to go to the state’s Human Relations Commission. The bill also set financial penalties for discrimination, reaching as high as $15,000 for repeat offenders.

But the bill faced opposition from spokespeople for some municipal governments, who argued it could force them to spend more on police, case managers, shelter and sanitation and criticized the bill for guaranteeing a right to live in a vehicle on public property. Delaware Apartment Association president Debra Burgos also argued some amount of discrimination based on housing status is important for landlords.

“Housing status is an important factor in our ability to screen residents," she said. "Residents who are going to pay rent, and who are going to move into our homes, take care of the property, and not impact other neighbors’ quiet enjoyment of their homes.”

Supporters of the bill, however, said that protecting the rights of unhoused people could help mitigate a worsening crisis.

“We cannot legislate hearts, and we cannot legislate mindsets," said Dr. DeBorah Gilbert White, an advocate with the Delaware HOMES campaign, "but we can provide a mechanism for people who are experiencing homelessness, who are identified as homeless, and who have experienced discrimination can have a place to go for recourse. ”

Gilbert White also noted that turning away applicants who have no recent rental history — or whose most recent address is a shelter — can present a major hurdle for those trying to find housing and stability. Kyra Hoffner, a community advocate from Kent County and a candidate for Delaware's 14th district Senate seat, also noted that as the number of people experiencing homelessness rises in Delaware, municipalities will not be able to avoid the rising costs of the crisis. "If people are living there now, the costs are already there too."

Housing Alliance Delaware’s 2022 point-in-time count found 2,369 unhoused people across the state – twice as many as in early 2020. A third of those counted this year were children.

Only three members of the committee voted to support the bill; two Democratic members did not vote, and all Republicans opposed the measure.