Reforming Housing and Criminal Justice Policies to End Homelessness

Each year, millions of individuals, families, and youth experience homelessness. A critical lack of affordable housing is the driving cause, and even emergency shelter space is in short supply, leaving many with no choice but to live in public places. But instead of providing housing, many communities are increasingly criminalizing homelessness. To solve the problem, they should shift course.

The critical lack of affordable housing, coupled with inadequate incomes, is the driving cause of homelessness.  Drastic cuts in federal housing programs over the past three decades have fueled the growth of homelessness; during the same period, and especially in recent years, the explosive redevelopment of many urban areas has destroyed inexpensive private market housing, displacing many poor people and driving some into homelessness. According to a recent report, there is currently a shortage of 7.2 million rental units affordable by the 10.4 million households with incomes at 30 percent or below of the median for the area.

But rather than addressing the housing gap, communities are increasingly punishing homeless people by making it a crime to sit, sleep, and eat in public places, even in the absence of alternatives. For our most recent national report on the topic, No Safe Place, published in 2014, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Povertysurveyed 187 cities and found that criminalizing measures had increased dramatically since our last survey in 2011. Strikingly, city-wide bans on “camping” in public places increased by 60 percent and sleeping in vehicles increased by 119percent.  Some cities even prohibited private charities from offering food to poor people in public.

 Criminalizing measures are often the result of pressure from business groups, and sometimes private citizens, to “do something” about homelessness. Businesses argue that the presence of destitute people deters commerce and tourism, harming the city’s economy. Residents of gentrifying city centers may be disturbed by the sight of ragged people and the experience of being implored for spare change. The result is laws criminalizing the public presence of homeless and poor people, in an effort to drive them out of downtown or even all areas of the city.

But such measures do nothing to the problem—or to address these concerns. Instead, they simply force people to move from place to place, making their lives even more challenging. Even worse, and ironically, such measures prolong homelessness, deepening the problem they are trying to eliminate. Ultimately, arrested or incarcerated people experiencing homelessness return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now burdened with financial obligations, such as fines and fees that they can’t pay. Criminal records create barriers to employment, housing, and public benefits, making homelessness even more difficult to escape.

Criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness, as demonstrated by a growing body of research. For example, a 2013study by University of New Mexico showed that by providing housing, the city of Albuquerque reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64 percent.

 Criminalization also raises important constitutional concerns; a number of courts have invalidated such measures. The strategy raises human rights concerns too; the U.N. Human Rights Committee recently found that the criminalization of homelessness violates our country’s human rights obligations.

Last year, after years of advocacy by the Law Center and our allies, key federal agencies began taking our side, adopting a new stance against criminalization. The Department of Justice filed a supportive brief in our case challenging a camping ban in Boise, ID, stating that criminalizing homelessness violates the U.S. Constitution.

Also last year, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness issued guidance saying evicting homeless encampments without providing adequate alternative housing is never appropriate. And the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development inserted a new question into its application for a $2 billion grant program giving local governments and organizations higher scores if they demonstrate they are preventing the criminalization of homelessness.

Now, together with advocates across the country, the Law Center is developing a campaign to redirect law and policy away from criminalization and towards housing instead. Over 100 organizations are working on the campaign, and we expect to launch it formally later this year.

As advocates to end homelessness, we agree that people should not be living in public places or begging for change. The question is what to do about this. We believe that it is morally wrong, legally questionable, and ineffective public policy to simply make it a crime to do these things. Instead, we should truly solve the problem of homelessness through affordable housing, fair wages and public benefits, and social services.

This is a critical moment in the national response to homelessness. We have a unique opportunity to build on the momentum of these recent successes to move forward to redirect law and policy away from harmful, counterproductive and costly responses to constructive solutions that can end homelessness in America. The time to act is now.

Find this post on the Spotlight on Poverty blog, published June 14, 2016.

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Shifting the Focus From Criminalization to Housing

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What would happen if we started focusing on housing those experiencing homelessness instead of criminalizing the individuals? Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty examines the moral and financial cost of the criminalization of people who have fallen into homelessness and how funders can help redirect policy towards housing instead.

Imagine a world where it is illegal to sit down. Could you survive if there were no place where you were allowed to fall asleep, store your belongings, or even stand still? For most of us, it’s hard to fathom facing such challenges. For Americans who are experiencing homelessness, they are an ordinary part of daily life.

Millions of individuals, families, and youth experience homelessness each year, and millions more lack access to decent, stable housing they can afford. Nationally, even emergency shelter space is in short supply, leaving many with no choice but to struggle for survival in public places.

But rather than providing housing, too many communities criminalize homelessness by making it illegal for people to sit, sleep, and even eat in public places, even in the absence of adequate alternatives.

For our most recent national report on the topic, No Safe Place, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty surveyed 187 cities and found that the criminalization is highly prevalent in cities across the country, and has increased dramatically in recent years. Strikingly, bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119%.

Criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness, as demonstrated by a growing body of research comparing the cost of homelessness, including the cost of criminalization, with housing.  For example, a 2015 study by University of North Carolina, Charlotte revealed a Housing First pilot program that saved Mecklenberg County $2.4 million over 3 years and had an over 80% success rate in ending homelessness.

Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. Ultimately, arrested or incarcerated people experiencing homelessness return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now laden with financial obligations, such as fines and fees that they can’t pay. Moreover, criminal records can create barriers to employment, housing, and public benefits, making homelessness even more difficult to escape.

Criminalization laws raise important constitutional concerns, and a number of courts have invalidated them. They raise equality and human rights concerns as well; the U.N. Human Rights Committee recently found that the criminalization of homelessness violates our country’s human rights obligations. And such laws can disproportionately specific sub-populations such as people of color, disabled people, and LGBT youth.

The Law Center and our allies have been pushing for the federal government to take a more active position against the criminalization of homelessness. After years of advocacy, last summer this work began to pay off:

  • In August, 2015, the Department of Justice filed a brief in our case challenging a camping ban in Boise, ID, supporting our position and stating that criminalizing homelessness violates the U.S. Constitution. A few months later, the DoJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services stated:  “Arresting people for performing basic life-sustaining activities like sleeping in public takes law enforcement professionals away from what they are trained to do: fight crime.”
  • Also in August 2015, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness issued guidance saying evicting homeless encampments without providing adequate alternative housing is never appropriate.
  • And in September 2015, the Department of Housing & Urban Development inserted a new question into its application for a $2 billion grant program giving local governments and organizations higher scores if they demonstrate they are preventing the criminalization of homelessness.

Now, together with advocates across the country, the Law Center is developing a campaign to redirect law and policy away from criminalization and towards housing instead. Over 100 organizations are working on the campaign, and we expect to launch it formally later this year.

Funders have a key role to play in making this work successful. There are many ways to get involved.  You can:

  1. Convene key stakeholders in your community—including business leaders, local officials, service providers, advocates and homeless people– to learn about the issues, understand why criminalization is not the solution, and get behind policies to create more housing options.
  2. Support education, outreach, training and technical assistance to your community learn how to use the new federal policies to make change locally.
  3. Support advocacy to build on the momentum of recent victories—at all levels of government.
  4. Endorse our campaign—and become an advocate in your own community. Use your voice and influence within your area to start the conversation and initiate change.

No fair minded person wants those who are experiencing homelessness to have to live in public places. The question is what to do about this. We feel that with information and good will, we can find common ground and all stakeholders can get behind the goal fighting against criminalization and for  adequate housing for all.

Find this post on the Funders Together blog, published April 4, 2016.

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2016 LEAP Breakfast

On June 16th, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty held its LEAP (Lawyers Executive Advisory Partners) Breakfast at the Bank of America in Washington D.C. The LEAP Program includes attorneys from corporate legal departments and law firms who provide pro-bono services, instrumental to the Law Center’s mission to prevent and end homelessness.
Speakers included Helen Kanovsky, General Counsel, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development; Law Center Executive Director, Maria Foscarinis; Bruce Rosenblum, Managing Director at the Carlyle Group and Corporate Advisor to LEAP; Larry Chattoo, Assistant General Counsel at Bank of America; and Peter Thomas LEAP Chair and Managing Partner at Simpson Thacher LLP’s Washington D.C. office.
Speakers shared about their pro bono projects instrumental to the Law Center’s mission to prevent and end homelessness. They also addressed the importance of fighting the criminalization of homelessness on a local and national level and the tremendous impact pro-bono efforts can have on communities across the country. Visit www.nlchp.org/leap to learn more about pro bono opportunities with the Law Center.
 IMG_4104 IMG_4206IMG_4181IMG_4226IMG_4224IMG_4198IMG_4097IMG_4099IMG_4102IMG_4093IMG_4087IMG_4072Photos by Janelle Fernandez
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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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