This Week’s Timely Reminder from Pope Francis

This week, Pope Francis has been in Washington, D.C. – at the White House, Capitol Hill, the Basilica, and a homeless shelter. This pope, a massively popular cultural star and hero to many, has touched a nerve in his approach to poverty. At a time when Los Angeles, CA and Portland, OR are declaring that their homelessness constitutes a “state of emergency,” his message is especially timely.

Pope Francis both speaks and lives in a way that honors the poor, that lifts up their humanity and their dignity through respect.  This approach, of respecting and restoring the humanity and dignity of the world’s least fortunate, is refreshing and in many ways antithetical to the louder cultural forces that tell us to blame, punish, and dehumanize those who are suffering.

In his speech at the White House and his speech before a joint session of Congress, the Pope pointed again and again to the needs of the poor and our national obligation to do something about them.  He called out to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, four Americans whose impact on this country came from their service and dedication, their humility and respect for those with the least. He has said in the past “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies”

And his deeds have matched these words.  Thursday, the pope left Capitol Hill to spend his lunchtime with DC residents experiencing homelessness. Just before lunch he said, “we can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” as he reminded everyone that Jesus entered the world as a homeless person.

We do not end homelessness by blaming or punishing those who are experiencing it. But we also do not end homelessness by bestowing meager benefits while looking down judgmentally on those who seek help. We end homelessness when we recognize the inherent dignity and humanity of each person and we change our policies to reflect that. This approach is a human rights approach and stems from universal human rights in international law that call for a right to housing.

In fact, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has come out strongly in support of the human right to housing.

The Catholic bishops believe decent, safe, and affordable housing is a human right. Catholic teaching supports the right to private property, but recognizes that communities and the government have an obligation to ensure the housing needs of all are met, especially poor and vulnerable people and their families. At a time of rising homelessness and when many workers’ wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising, it is important to ensure housing security.

If we can learn one thing about the Pope’s ability to inspire and capture attention, it should be this: he lives and acts the fundamental idea that every human being has inherent dignity and humanity and that every community has responsibilities to respect and uphold that humanity. We need to change our approach to poverty and homelessness.

We need to start with respect for the dignity and humanity of all, add policies that embody that respect, and move toward a human right to housing.

 

Find this post on the Huffington Post Blog.

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The 2015 National Forum on the Human Right to Housing

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Wednesday, June 24 and Thursday, June 25 marked the Law Center’s two-day National Forum on the Human Right to Housing, hosted by the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The event gathered organizers, attorneys and legal service providers, funders, federal agencies, and advocates at the local, state, and national levels to strategize coordinated approaches to opposing the criminalization of homelessness and work towards a common goal of a justiciable human right to housing.

Keynote speaker, Mark Uhry of Fondation Abbe Pierre, spoke to the successes and ongoing work in his home country, as France implements a right to housing. Mr. Uhry provided a look at where we can go from here as many advocates seek to move towards this right in the United States. Following the keynote were presentations on current challenges and opportunities: advocates spoke on their current fight against the criminalization of homeless individuals, future goals shaping affirmative rights, and using the power of federal funding and framing to protect rights and advance housing.

The Law Center facilitated discussion and advocated that the battle against the criminalization of those experiencing homelessness provided a unique and strategic opportunity to make a civil and human rights demand: safe and affordable housing for all. Morning breakout sessions spoke to litigation strategy, the power of organizing, and policy advocacy. During the lunch session, the floor opened up to a funder’s discussion led by P.J. D’Amico of the Buck Foundation in Denver, CO. He spoke about honestly about how advocates can partner with funders and encouraged those asking for funding to think of funders as allies. It was an honor to have his perspective and to hear about his passion of ending and preventing homelessness. In the afternoon, the issues were approached from the local, state, and national levels, discussing topics including local ordinances, Homeless Bill of Rights, affordable housing policy, and a shift from criminalization to pro-housing policy at the federal level.

Thank you to Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center and our other sponsors, Covington & Burling LLP, Fish & Richardson P.C. and Sidley Austin LLP, and to our participants from all across the United States. Your time, energy and dedication were invaluable in facilitating meaningful conversation and moving us all toward consensus about our shared approach to ending the criminalization of homelessness and promoting instead the human right to housing.

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Maria Foscarinis Defends Title V Before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management

On Tuesday, June 16, 2015, Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the Law Center, testified before The U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management. The hearing, titled “Saving Taxpayer Dollars in Federal Real Estate: Reducing the Federal Government’s Space Footprint,” discussed reforming how the federal government disposes of its unused and underutilized real property. Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires that homeless service providers have first right of refusal to obtain unused federal real property holdings at no cost. In other words, the program grants eligible groups, such as local governments and non-profit homeless service providers, the right to apply for federal real property that has been deemed surplus or excess to the needs of the federal government-property that may otherwise be unaffordable to them-in order to provide housing or services to those experiencing homelessness.

Ms. Foscarinis testified that Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a proven vehicle for assisting America’s homeless with no cost to taxpayers- all while reducing the federal real estate footprint. Under Title V, more than two million Americans have benefited from the disposal of approximately 500 federal buildings and 900 acres of land, now developed to provide housing, shelter, and other services, including job training and child care. Taking an affirmative stance in order to better implement Title V, Ms. Foscarinis cited three areas for improvement: holding federal agencies accountable to offer federal real property holdings that have been vacant for a year; streamlining the application process for homeless service providers, so that they can be considered more fairly; and eliminating bureaucratic redundancy by investing sole authority in consideration to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ms. Foscarinis’ testimony was prepared with the help of attorneys Aaron Cooper and Perrin Cooke of Covington & Burling LLP. Covington has been a vital asset in providing the Law Center with legislative advice and guidance.

Among other witnesses were agency representatives of the General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.  Homelessness remains a national crisis, and with this opportunity to testify Ms. Foscarinis maintained the position that the Law Center and Congress share the goal of streamlining the disposal of unused and unneeded federal properties.

Read the testimony and watch the entire hearing here. Learn more about Title V in The Law Center’s report on the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act This Land is Your Land.maria_titlev

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Police Violence Against Homeless, Poor Persons, Housing & Homelessness Addressed At Global Review of U.S. Human Rights Record

Photo Credit: US Human Rights Network

Photo Credit: US Human Rights Network

On Monday, May 11, the U.N. Human Rights Council reviewed the U.S. for compliance with its human rights obligations as part of the U.S.’s second Universal Periodic Review raising concerns about the criminalization of homelessness and poverty as well as the lack of adequate housing in the U.S.

Under the Review procedure, every country in the world is reviewed every 4 years for their compliance with all the human rights treaties they have ratified as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Right. 116 countries signed up to ask questions and make recommendations to the U.S. during a 3-hour session, and the U.S. had a brief time to respond.

Echoing the recent calls from other human rights monitors, Egypt recommended amending laws on criminalization of homelessness that are not in conformity with human rights standards, Serbia and Cuba called for reducing neighborhood poverty and ensuring access to adequate housing, Sudan specifically called for addressing discriminatory housing conditions, and numerous countries called for ratification and implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, including the right to housing, and addressed police targeting and brutality against homeless, poor, and minority communities.

Bryan Greene, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development responded to the international concerns. With regards to discrimination, he noted the increased enforcement of fair housing laws at the federal level. He discussed the federal plan to end homelessness, noting recent progress in decreasing chronic and veterans’ homelessness, and a commitment to working on the issue of criminalization, noting Housing First is the best way to prevent police interactions with homeless persons.

“Today’s review shows the whole world sees the connection between the criminalization of poverty and the underlying conditions of lack of adequate housing, healthcare, and education in our communities,” said Eric Tars, Senior Attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which submitted a report in preparation for the Review. “As acknowledged in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we cannot make progress on civil rights without addressing economic rights as well.”

The U.S must formally accept or reject the Review’s recommendations at the next Council session in the fall.

“The U.S. holds itself up as a leader on human rights, and we must walk the walk as much as we talk the talk,” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director at the Law Center, said, “The Law Center looks forward to meeting with the U.S. government to ensure it adopts the recommendations regarding housing and homelessness and sets concrete targets to implement them.”

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Housing & Homelessness Addressed At Global Review of U.S. Human Rights Record

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On Monday, May 11, the U.N. Human Rights Council reviewed the U.S. for compliance with its human rights obligations as part of the U.S.’s second Universal Periodic Review. Thanks to advocacy by the Law Center and others, several countries raised concerns about the lack of adequate housing as well as the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S.

Under the Review procedure, every country in the world is reviewed every 4 years for their compliance with all the human rights treaties they have ratified as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Right. 116 countries signed up to ask questions and make recommendations to the U.S. during a 3-hour session, and the U.S. had a brief time to respond.

Echoing the recent calls from other human rights monitors:

  • Egypt recommended amending laws on criminalization of homelessness that are not in accordance with human rights standards
  • Serbia and Cuba called for reducing neighborhood poverty and ensuring access to adequate housing
  • Sudan specifically called for addressing discriminatory housing conditions
  • And numerous countries called for ratification and implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, including the right to housing, and addressed police brutality, which overlaps with criminalization concerns

Bryan Greene, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, responded to the international concerns. With regards to discrimination, he noted the increased enforcement of fair housing laws at the federal level. He discussed the federal plan to end homelessness, noting recent progress in decreasing chronic and veterans’ homelessness, and a commitment to working on the issue of criminalization, noting Housing First is the best way to prevent police interactions with homeless persons. He also addressed the situation in Detroit regarding water cut-offs and noted that although there is no constitutional right to water, it is an issue that the government takes seriously.

The U.S must formally accept or reject the Review’s recommendations at the next Council session in the fall. In the coming months, the Law Center will meet with the U.S. government to ensure it adopts the recommendation regarding housing and homelessness and sets concrete targets to implement them.

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U.S. Report to the Human Rights Council Under-Represents the Violations of the Human Right to Housing

Last Friday, the U.S. government released its report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, downplaying the state of housing and homelessness concerns in the U.S.

The report was prepared as part of the U.S. government’s obligations for its second Universal Periodic Review by the Council, with an oral review to take place in May. Every four-and-a-half years, the U.S.–and every other country—undergoes such a review on all its human rights commitments. In 2010, the U.S. accepted recommendations during its first Universal Periodic Review to:

  1. Reduce homelessness;
  2. Reinforce legal protections for homeless persons;
  3. Create adequate, affordable housing for all segments of American society; and
  4. Take further measures to address discrimination and inequalities in housing.

For its second review, the U.S. must report on the progress it has made in implementing these recommendations. While necessarily highly abbreviated in a report limited to 20 pages that must cover all 200 recommendations from the previous review, the report nevertheless does injustice to the scale and scope of housing rights violations in the U.S., stating:

The United States is committed to ending homelessness, and has made great progress in this area. For example, in 2010, we launched Opening Doors, a strategic plan aimed at ending homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015; chronic homelessness by 2016; and homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020; and setting a path to eradicate all types of homelessness in the United States. HUD’s statistics show that since that launch, chronic homelessness has dropped 21 percent, homelessness among families has declined 15 percent, and homelessness among veterans has fallen by 33 percent. In 2016, the new National Housing Trust Fund is expected to begin distributing funds to increase and preserve affordable housing for very low-income and homeless individuals. Additionally, federal law guarantees immediate access to a free appropriate public education for children and youth experiencing homelessness.

The Law Center has held and participated in numerous meetings and consultations with the U.S. government over the past four years to discuss progress in achieving the 2010 recommendations. This includes a meeting just last Wednesday, facilitated by the Department of Housing & Urban Development. As outlined in our report to the Human Rights Council issued last September, with regards to the housing-specific recommendations accepted by the U.S., since 2010:

  1. Homelessness has not been reduced. Despite gains for some sub-populations including veterans and chronically homeless individuals, the number of homeless families, children, and unaccompanied youth has risen since 2010.  U.S. law provides no entitlement to housing assistance for low income people; recognition of a right to even basic shelter is extremely limited.
  2. Homeless persons remain vulnerable to threats. Despite the lack of adequate housing or even shelter, many homeless people in the United States regularly have no choice but to face the degradation of performing basic bodily functions—sitting, eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom—in public. This is compounded when they are criminally punished for engaging in these basic, life-sustaining activities. The enforcement of these laws which deny homeless persons’ humanity leads to a climate which permits brutal violence against homeless persons to take place.
  3. Housing affordability remains at crisis levels. One quarter of renters pay more than 50% of their income on housing; conversely, only one quarter of renters eligible for federal housing assistance actually receive it, and the federal budget for developing and maintaining public housing and providing for low-income housing subsidies has decreased. No binding requirements exist for jurisdictions to plan for and create incentives for the production of sufficient adequate, affordable housing for low-income persons. Lack of affordable housing remains a principal cause of homelessness in the U.S.
  4. Discrimination on the basis of race, disability, gender, national origin, criminal background, and a number of other characteristics remains persistent in the housing market. Foreclosures and the lack of maintenance of foreclosed properties by institutional owners have taken a disparate toll in minority communities. This leads to the persistence of segregated, inadequate housing conditions for many minorities. The federal government is failing to use its full powers to correct these inequities, and in some cases is promoting them.

The Law Center and its partners put forth a series of recommendations on how best to implement the right to housing in the U.S in their alternative stakeholder report to the Council. The Law Center looks forward to continuing to use the Review process to push forward the dialogue on the human right to housing with the government, but we believe as part of an honest human rights assessment, the government must first acknowledge the depth of the ongoing housing crisis, both in our representations to the international community as well as to its constituents here at home.

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The Law Center’s 2014 Accomplishments and an Overview of Homelessness in America

This past year was an incredible one for the Law Center thanks to our many advocates and supporters. We saw many accomplishments and raised an unprecedented amount of awareness on the issue of homelessness. See a synopsis of our 2014 successes here and in a letter from our Executive Director and Founder, Maria Foscarinis.

It gives us great hope that one day these successes will translate into our ultimate goal, to end and prevent homelessness in America.

For an overview of homelessness in America, please see our newest fact sheet which provides statistics and information related to the demographics of people experiencing homelessness, as well as the causes of homelessness, available here.

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Supreme Court Asked to Review Wisconsin Voter ID Case

On January 7, 2015, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (Law Center) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review last fall’s 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Frank v. Walker, our challenge to the Wisconsin voter ID statute. In our petition to the Court, the Law Center argued that the appeals court decision mischaracterized facts found at trial, and applied a flawed legal standard in analyzing both equal protection and Voting Rights Act (VRA) claims.

The petition argues that the Supreme Court should decide the important voting rights question posed by this case – whether voter ID laws are constitutional when they burden the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of state residents and do not advance a legitimate state interest. With respect to the equal protection claim, the petition argues that the 7th Circuit erred in finding that it was obligated to uphold the Wisconsin voter ID law under the Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, because unlike in Crawford substantial evidence was presented at trial to demonstrate the significant burdens of the law. In addition, the petition argues that the 7th Circuit improperly analyzed this case under the VRA. Specifically, the 7th Circuit improperly determined that a VRA plaintiff is required to prove intentional discrimination, as opposed to demonstrating a discriminatory impact – and that such a plaintiff must prove a denial of the right to vote, although the statute only requires proof of an abridgement of the right to vote.

Frank v. Walker was filed by the Law Center and our co-counsel at the ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and Dechert LLP. The Supreme Court petition was jointly filed with the League of United Latin American Citizens, represented by Arnold & Porter and the Advancement Project. The suit seeks to protect the voting rights of all Wisconsin voters, including approximately 300,000 registered voters who lack the necessary ID to vote under the voter ID law; a significant number are low income or homeless individuals.

A copy of the filed petition can be found at: http://nlchp.org/documents/Frank_v_Walker_SC_petition_20150107

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Funding Allocation Made To National Housing Trust Fund

After more than a decade of work by the Law Center and other advocates seeking to generate more federal funding for affordable housing development, the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) became law in 2008.  The funding source for the NHTF was to be a percentage of the profits from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Unfortunately, due to the recession and foreclosure crisis, these entities failed to turn a profit in 2008 and subsequent years, and contributions to the NHTF were suspended.

However, on December 11, Federal Housing Finance Administration Director notified both Fannie and Freddie that in his determination both agencies are once again profitable, and thus must contribute to the NHTF going forward.  The contribution will be based on 2015 profits and will be made at the end of the year, so funds will not be available through the NHTF until early 2016.  Despite the lag time before the NHTF will begin to distribute funds, we are pleased by this important decision and excited to see the NHTF finally move closer to operation.

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Food-Sharing Ordinance in Dallas Revised

On Wednesday, December 10, the Law Center formally settled our long-standing litigation with the city of Dallas, over the city’s ordinance imposing unreasonable burdens on religious and other nonprofit organizations seeking to share food with homeless persons in public spaces.  As part of the settlement, the Dallas City Council approved a revised ordinance governing food sharing, and agreed to pay the Law Center and our clients $250,000.  In March, 2013, the Law Center secured a favorable judicial decision in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in Dallas.  The decision found that significant portions of the ordinance violated the Texas Religious Freedom Act – imposing undue burdens on our clients, religious organizations sharing food with homeless persons out of their spiritual beliefs and convictions.

Specifically, the settlement and revised ordinance:

  • Eliminate the need for organizations to provide advance notice of food sharing, unless more than 75 people will be fed.
  • Remove the requirement that organizations sharing food provide restroom facilities.
  • Allow people sharing food to sanitize their hands with liquid sanitizer, rather than requiring them to provide access to soap and running water.
  • Apply to all organizations sharing food with homeless persons, not just religious groups.

This, especially in light of the recent attention on food-sharing bans, is a crucial victory in our effort to reverse the criminalization of homelessness. The Law Center is committed to ensuring the rights of those experiencing homelessness are secure, as well as the rights of those wishing to help them.

Read even more about this at Think Progress, This Texas City’s Attempt to Fight Charities that Feed the Homeless Cost it 8 Years and $250,000.

 

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