UNHOUSED AND UNPROTECTED
The fight for a Homeless Bill of Rights persists in Wisconsin
by Braden Ross
Ulysses Williams takes a puff of his cigarette before he speaks.
“I was born and raised in the inner city of Milwaukee,” he says. “I left and came here, was middle class for 27 years, and then I got divorced and everything went downhill from there.”
We’re sitting at a picnic table in front of the house where he’s been living for the last seven years. But before this place, Williams was living on the streets of Madison.
“I was homeless. That was 2011,” he says. “I stayed homeless for 14 months, got a place and then, like usual, I lost my job. Back out on the street again, and that was 15 months out on the streets.”
Williams knows firsthand the hardships of being unhoused. It was those experiences that led him toward working on a solution that he hopes will make life better for those who are experiencing homelessness. It’s an idea that would give people who already have very little an extra bump, a step beyond mere survival to a place where they are protected and even given a chance to get ahead.
In May, Williams introduced a Homeless Bill of Rights to the City-County Homeless Issues Committee, a local government body made up of Dane County supervisors, Madison alders and people tied to the area’s homeless community. The document lists nine rights he hopes to protect, including the right to use and move freely in public spaces, the right to vote, a reasonable expectation of privacy of personal property, and the right to pray, meditate or practice religion in public spaces, among others.
The idea of a Homeless Bill of Rights is not unique to Madison or Williams; it’s something that activists across the country have championed for years. In drafting his own Homeless Bill of Rights, Williams drew inspiration from legislation that has been passed in other cities and states. The proposal was recommended by the City-County Homeless Issues Committee and Williams says it’s under consideration by the Dane County Board of Supervisors.
“The original goal for a lot of them was to protect people from being criminally punished for trying to survive in public spaces,” says Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center. “Saying that you can’t punish a person for living in [a] public space when there isn’t an adequate private place for them to be.”
In 2012, Rhode Island became the first state to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, followed by Illinois and Connecticut. Other states like California and Oregon have passed more specific homeless rights legislation. In 2021, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, introduced the Unhoused Bill of Rights, the first ever federal resolution for homeless rights, which, if passed, would signify a federal commitment to solving the issue of homelessness.
Tars says these policies are a step in the right direction, but many had most of the stronger protections stripped out of them during the legislative process.
“The ones that are already passed are there, but they’re weaker, almost to the point of non-enforceability,” Tars says. “The ones that are stronger just haven’t passed.”
The general goals of Homeless Bills of Rights are twofold. For one, it’s designed to protect the homeless from discrimination based on their housing status, something Williams says is all too common.
“America unfortunately has a history of discrimination,” he says. “Firstly Indians, then African Americans, then Jewish and Irish. They do have that history, and right now, it’s homelessness.”
He says he’s witnessed and experienced discrimination due to housing status many times, from seeing people being denied service at businesses to being removed from certain street corners. On one occasion, Williams says he was handing out water on State Street when he saw a police officer clear out an entire group after seeing one person drinking alcohol.
“The police officer came up and of course he poured it out and started talking to them about, ‘Hey you guys come down here, you start fights down here, how about you guys start moving it out of here?’” Williams says. “They have a right to be there. You only caught one person drinking. Everybody else wasn’t drinking, but everybody cleared out of there because he caught one person drinking.”
He says he specifically included No. 8 on the list, the right to engage in lawful self-employment, because of discrimination he says he and others faced while trying to make some extra cash by collecting and recycling aluminum cans.
“The city made an ordinance that you cannot take it out of any trash containers,” Williams says. “Then all of a sudden, the recycling places, you cannot walk up and bring cans. You gotta be in a car, which, boom, it’s no longer possible to do.”
The other, and perhaps more dire, goal of a Homeless Bills of Rights is to eliminate the criminalization of homelessness by getting rid of laws against illegal camping and panhandling, among other things. In Dane County, an average of 13% of the annual bookings into the Dane County Jail are people who are presumed to be homeless.
“We all sleep, we all eat, we all go to the bathroom, we all enjoy being able to shelter ourselves when it’s too hot or too cold outside,” Tars says. “But those activities that all of us take for granted can become criminal acts if they’re done outside in some places.”
Even offenses that begin with just a fine can land someone who can’t afford to pay them in jail, which then becomes a barrier to finding housing and a job. On top of that, jail time can often trigger mental health issues. Tars says this type of criminalization only makes the issue worse.
“Even long after you might have been arrested, these fines and fees can follow you and make it impossible for you to get housing or stay housed for potentially years after,” Tars says.
Pearl Foster, a volunteer, advocate and member of the Madison Wisconsin Homeless Union, also recognizes the harm in criminalization and says even small steps are impactful.
“We need as many things to protect our homeless population as we can,” Foster says. “So if that’s a Homeless Bill of Rights plus homelessness as a protected class and any other laws such as overturning some of the ones that already criminalize homelessness. We just need it all out there right now.”
Advocates agree that these policies are not working to solve the issue and hope that a Homeless Bill of Rights will both provide protections and push policy makers to rethink how they approach homelessness.
“The hope is that by creating this new floor of rights, that the solutions that communities will turn to will be actual constructive solutions that work for everybody rather than just allowing public officials to push the problem out of the public view for their own convenience,” Tars says.
Slideshow by Braden Ross. Featured photo by Perri Moran.