Subscribe by Email:
- Children & Youth
- Civil Rights
- Domestic Violence
- Human Rights
- February 2017 (1)
- January 2017 (1)
- December 2016 (2)
- October 2016 (2)
- September 2016 (1)
- August 2016 (1)
- July 2016 (3)
- September 2015 (2)
- July 2015 (1)
- May 2015 (2)
- February 2015 (1)
- January 2015 (2)
- December 2014 (3)
- July 2014 (4)
- May 2014 (3)
- April 2014 (3)
- March 2014 (2)
- February 2014 (1)
- January 2014 (1)
- October 2013 (11)
- September 2013 (2)
- August 2013 (2)
- July 2013 (4)
- June 2013 (11)
- May 2013 (7)
- April 2013 (5)
- March 2013 (10)
- February 2013 (3)
- January 2013 (4)
- December 2012 (3)
- November 2012 (1)
- October 2012 (3)
- September 2012 (4)
- August 2012 (2)
- July 2012 (6)
- June 2012 (10)
- May 2012 (4)
- April 2012 (3)
- March 2012 (3)
- February 2012 (9)
- January 2012 (4)
- November 2011 (2)
- October 2011 (2)
- September 2011 (4)
- August 2011 (4)
- July 2011 (4)
- June 2011 (5)
- May 2011 (5)
- April 2011 (2)
- March 2011 (3)
- February 2011 (7)
- January 2011 (3)
- December 2010 (8)
- November 2010 (9)
- October 2010 (6)
- September 2010 (6)
- August 2010 (4)
- July 2010 (7)
- June 2010 (8)
- May 2010 (5)
- April 2010 (9)
- March 2010 (9)
- February 2010 (3)
Support Our Work
Photo Credit – Flickr
Last week, communities across the country began conducting “counts” of their homeless populations, an effort most will wrap up this week. The results will be published later this year in a report assessing the state of homelessness in America—including whether it is going up or down.
The problem is—the “counts” won’t tell us that.
A lot of energy goes into the counts, which are federally mandated, and volunteers come out in force to help. This is a good thing: it shows how much people care about their fellow Americans who are without one of the most basic necessities of life: a safe, decent place to live.
The annual count—known as the “point in time” or PIT count—attempts to measure the number of people living in shelters, transitional housing and outdoor locations on a single January night across the United States.
Counting people in shelters or transitional housing is fairly straightforward. Federally funded providers of these services are required to report how many people they serve. If a shelter losses funding and has fewer beds to offer, it will report fewer numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean that homelessness has gone down—just that there is less help available.
Presumably, the other part of the count—known as the “street” count—should capture anyone who is not able to get into shelter or transitional housing. But that part of the count is even more problematic.
The federal mandate is to count individuals and families living in public or private outdoor places “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport, or camping ground.”
It’s up to each community to devise its own process for carrying out the street count. Most communities simply organize volunteers to fan out and make judgments about who is homeless, after just a brief training session. And despite the broad mandate to count everyone living outside, federal guidelines caution against entering locations that might be unsafe, such as abandoned buildings and alleys—in other words, the very places where homeless people are likely to be.
Local laws and policies can also affect the count. As documented in a recent report, cities are increasingly making it a crime to sleep in public places, driving people further into hiding and making them harder to count.
Methods pioneered in New York City that statistically adjust for the built-in inaccuracies of the “street” count. They should be adopted nationally. Perhaps even more importantly, data must go beyond a single night, and it must capture the broader segment of people affected by the extreme shortage of affordable housing.
While it is billed as a count of the country’s homeless population, the Point in Time count does not include those who are doubled-up or couch surfing because they can’t afford their own place. Nor does it include people in hospitals, mental health or substance abuse centers, jails or prisons with nowhere to go upon release.
Minimizing the numbers and narrowing the definition simply obscures the size and nature of the crisis we are facing—and makes it that much harder to solve. According to a recent report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, low-income households suffer an unprecedented housing cost burden, forcing many to choose between rent and food. Homelessness is in fact the last point on a continuum of housing need.
Currently, our country’s housing policy and laws are terribly out of balance. As noted in the Harvard study, only one in four of those poor enough to be eligible for federal housing assistance actually receive it. Over the past three decades, federal funding has been cut dramatically, shredding this basic part of the social safety net.
Defining homelessness narrowly and understating its size may make it seem more “manageable” and thus more solvable. But it will also drive policy responses that inevitably fail: even if a community succeeds in housing its current homeless population, unless it also addresses the larger need, more people will become homeless. This will simply further the already prevailing—and false—view that homelessness is “intractable,” discouraging efforts to solve it.
To really solve it, we must acknowledge the true nature of the crisis, locate it within the large problem of housing injustice, and build a movement to correct it.
Please view our Executive Director Maria Foscarinis’ original blog featured on The Huffington Post here.
- Educate yourself and others. Peruse our web site, participate in our webinars, read our reports – and then share information about the Law Center’s work with others.
- Use social media to help drive attention to our critical work. Follow the Law Center on twitter @NLCHPhomeless and the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign @HNHCampaign – please re-tweet our posts and encourage others to follow the Law Center on social media.
- Endorse and get involved in our Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign and invite others to do so as well by publicizing it.
- Speak out. Please contact your representatives in government. Contact your Senators and congresspersons about the critical need for affordable housing and stand up for the rights of people experiencing homelessness—including access to education for homeless children and youth. Weigh in at the state and local level too.
- If you work for a law firm or corporate legal department, you can volunteer to do pro bono work. Many of our pro bono partners support the Law Center through our Lawyers’ Executive Advisory Partners (LEAP) program. LEAP members receive priority selection of the Law Center’s pro bono work—including cutting edge, precedent-setting projects that address systemic injustices and help prevent and end homelessness. You can learn more by visiting nlchp.org/leap.
- Donate financially. Your support helps the Law Center provide legal support to local partners, train schools and communities about education rights, and advocate on behalf of people experiencing homelessness. Financial gifts to the Law Center have a high impact: every dollar is multiplied three or more times over in pro bono contributions.
Top 5 threats to people experiencing homelessness: what the Trump election could mean to the most vulnerable
People experiencing homelessness, or who are at risk of homelessness, are amongst the most marginalized and vulnerable people within our communities. And the issues related to homelessness do not always fall along partisan lines. Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming transition and the top 5 threats facing people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Please use this information to advocate with your representatives in government!
Threat 1: Decrease in funding for affordable housing
Homelessness is not inevitable; in fact, the most important cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing. To put it simply, wages are not sufficient to afford housing for far too many in our communities.
Massive cutbacks to federal housing funding in the early 1980s have never been restored —resulting in the crisis of homelessness we see now. Today only 1 out of 4 income-eligible renters receive assistance. But while Trump’s Campaign did not outline a housing plan, he committed to increase defense spending while lowering taxes and balancing the budget, which could mean further cuts to housing and other anti-poverty programs. In addition, Mr. Trump has said he wants to cut non-defense spending by 1% every year, which would be devastating to affordable housing programs including Section 8 vouchers, public housing, and project-based rental assistance which need toincrease every year just to keep pace with inflation.
This is consistentwith House Speaker Ryan’s proposed anti-poverty agenda, which could include welfare reform-type changes such as work requirements and time limits to all anti-poverty programs, and block-granting of more funds (which can allow anti-poverty funding to be used for other things, like building roads). Congress is also already drafting comprehensive tax reform bills that dramatically lower corporate and individual tax rates by reducing or eliminating tax expenditures and credits, threatening the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.
Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), retired surgeon Ben Carson, has no experiencing in housing policy, so the nominations for Assistant Secretary positions at HUD could be particularly important.
Threat 2: Reversal of efforts to stop the criminalization of homelessness
One of the most urgent and dire issues faced by people experiencing homelessness is the high risk they have of criminal justice system involvement simply for being without a home. Such criminalization of homelessness is inhumane, expensive, and makes it much more difficult for people to exit homelessness. See our recent report on this issue. Over the last two years in particular, the federal government showed important leadership in working against criminalization of homelessness.
The Justice Department filed a statement of interest brief in 2015 in a Law Center case, Bell v. Boise, arguing homeless people should not be punished for sleeping in public when they have no alternative and issued guidance in 2016 advising communities to stop putting people in jail for inability to pay fines and fees. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development incentivized constructive, non-criminalization responses to homelessness in its 2015 and 2016 funding applications for homeless programs. And the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released important guidance advising local governments to move away from criminalization.
Trump’s nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of U.S. Attorney General does not bode well for these efforts. Sessions has been an opponent of criminal justice reform.
Threat 3: Reversal of progress on civil rights
Housing discrimination and segregation in our communities both contribute structurally to homelessness. Earlier in his professional career Trump was accused of violations of the Fair Housing Act. Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for HUD Secretary is on record on only one housing policy: calling HUD efforts to undo segregation “social engineering.” This is a particularly inappropriate characterization since HUD’s legacy of creating segregation in the early half of the twentieth century is one of the strongest examples of social engineering available.
Concerns are also raised by Trump’s nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to the position of U.S. Attorney General. Senator Sessions voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, as well as against a number of other civil rights laws. He has spoken out against the Voting Rights Act, opposed bipartisan immigration reform, and supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Sessions also has criticized judicial nominees with civil rights backgrounds, and voted against Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’ nomination to serve as a federal judge based on his record opposing civil rights as well as evidence of racist comments in the workplace as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
In addition to HUD’s efforts to rectify segregation, the federal government has recently release a number of civil rights regulations and guidance that help to prevent and end homelessness, as well as make our housing market fairer. These include guidance and regulations to protect access to housing for victims of domestic violence; two regulations to ensure equal access to HUD housing regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity; guidance on criminal records and housing; guidance on discriminatory zoning ordinances; and more.
Threat 4: Reduced education access for children experiencing homelessness
School stability is so vital for children experiencing homelessness, a fact recognized by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Act, recently reauthorized in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Through his proposed nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Trump has signaled a potential new emphasis on vouchers and charter schools. This raises fears about any shift of federal funds away from public school districts to for-profit and private schools. These funding shifts can make it more difficult for public schools to provide children experiencing homelessness their right to a decent, stable education. A shift in emphasis could also make it more difficult for families and advocates to enforce rights promised by federal law. Charter schools are covered by McKinney Vento, but have high rates of non-compliance and are more difficult to monitor. More charter schools across the country, means greater need for oversight.
Threat 5: Repeal of, or change to, Affordable Care Act and Medicaid
The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, by providing health insurance to 20 million Americans, has prevented medical expenses from resulting in homelessness for countless families. It also has improved health access for people currently experiencing homelessness. According to a recent study, in states that expanded Medicaid, providers saw gains in health insurance among people who are homeless.
Trump and other Republicans have indicated repealing Obamacare is one of their highest priorities, but have not shared what would come after. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Representative Tom Price, previously introduced the Empowering Patients First Act, which involved age-adjusted tax credits to help people buy insurance as well as increased reliance on health savings accounts and high-risk pools at the state level and would have allowed people to opt out of Medicare, Medicaid or Veterans Affairs benefits and receive the tax credit to buy an individual plan. Similarly, House Speaker Ryan has indicated his desire to move away from Medicare to healthcare vouchers. Both steps will almost certainly result in more people with no or inadequate medical insurance and therefore increased housing instability and homelessness.
Ben Carson’s Nomination for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Opportunities and Concerns
The news on December 5th that Ben Carson has accepted Trump’s nomination for HUD Secretary is potentially cause for concern for the millions of Americans who are homeless or at risk—and for anyone who cares about this continuing crisis.
It’s a common misconception that people become homeless as a result of personal failures or poor choices. But by far the overwhelming cause of homelessness is the scarcity of affordable housing, and strong leadership from HUD will be essential in addressing it. Dr. Carson has no experience in housing policy, and some of the few statements he’s made are troubling.
Dr. Carson has used his personal story to criticize “dependency” on government programs. His autobiography opens with an Introduction from his mother, Sonya Carson, saying, “If you don’t succeed, you only have yourself to blame.” He has criticized regulation, the size of the government, and emphasized the need for personal responsibility and work. In his one published piece in reference to housing and urban development, Dr. Carson referred to a fair housing program as “social engineering.”
But, in fact, we know that homelessness is generally caused by structural reasons – such the fact that wages are not high enough to pay for housing and our country needs millions more units of affordable housing. Currently the United States spends more to subsidize the housing market for households making over $100,000, through the mortgage income tax deduction, than for low-income households, through all the housing programs combined. If government subsidies cause “dependency,” where is the evidence that the mortgage deduction is undermining the upper class? We also know that racial segregation is caused by social engineering — those government policies and practices that perpetuate racial living patterns in our communities — not the reverse.
If Dr. Carson is confirmed by the Senate, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty will do anything it can to assist him and his team at HUD to prevent and end homelessness in constructive and proven ways. We are hopeful about Dr. Carson’s statements that he does “care about the poor people” and that “we cannot have a strong nation if we have weak inner cities.” We hope he will take the time to learn about the true causes and solutions for poverty and homelessness in this nation.
For further information, please view Maria’s recent post featured on The Huffington Post.
On Thursday, October 6, 2016 Eric H. Holder, Jr. received the Outstanding Achievement Award at the Lawyer’s Executive Advisory Partners’ Luncheon, hosted by the Law Center and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. Eric Holder served as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States from 2009 to 2015, under President Barack Obama. He was the first African American to serve in that position. Mr. Holder is currently a partner at Covington & Burling LLP.
Additionally, members from our LEAP program shared stories 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.
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.
2016 Event Highlights
The McKinney-Vento Awards Ceremony was held on Thursday September 22, 2016 at The Liaison Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
We would like to take this time to thank all of our sponsors, presenters, performers, honorees, guests, staff and volunteers for attending our event. It was a night to remember!
If interested in viewing our 2016 Awards, please visit our YouTube Channel.
Law Center Executive Director & Founder Maria Foscarinis makes her opening remarks and gives a warm welcome to those in attendance at the 18th annual McKinney-Vento Awards.
Chair of the Law Center’s Board of Directors Ed McNicholas prepares to take the stage to introduce Honorary McKinney-Vento Host Committee Chair Steve Judge.
U.S. Senator Susan M. Collins (R-ME) accepts the Bruce F.
Vento Award, which was presented by Board Member and Honorary McKinney-Vento Host Committee Chair Steve Judge.
Chief Executive Officer of Monumental Sports & Entertainment Ted Leonsis presents the Stewart B. McKinney Award to Washington Wizards’ John Wall.
McKinney-Vento Host Committee Chair Dwight Fettig takes the stage to encourage the audience to make a donation to help the Law Center further their work – and entices them with the possibility of owning an official Washington Wizards’ jersey and NBA basketball autographed by John Wall.
Neil Steiner of Dechert LLP accepts the Pro Bono Counsel Award, which was presented by the Law Center’s Lawyers’ Executive Advisory Partners (LEAP) Chair Peter Thomas
Award winning anchor and correspondent for CBS News and CBS Sports Dana Jacobson presents the Personal Achievement Award to Ms. Angela Spencer and her son Amarion.
Amarion, son of this year’s Personal Achievement Honoree, walks away with autographed gear from Washington Wizards’ John Wall. The gear was won by the evening’s highest donors and was then gifted to Amarion, who was one of the evening’s biggest stars.
Across the country, cities are criminalizing homelessness, making it illegal for people to sit, sleep, and even eat in public places—despite the lack of affordable housing and other basic resources. Communities of color, mentally and physically disabled persons, and LGBT youth, already disproportionately affected by homelessness, are further marginalized: getting a job, housing, or public benefits is even more challenging with an arrest record.
These laws and policies violate civil and human rights, harm vulnerable people, reinforce cycles of poverty, and don’t work. Housing does work—it solves the problem of homelessness for those most directly affected, and for cities concerned about their public places. It is cost effective: housing homeless people costs less than criminalizing them and is more effective in the long term at the end goal of getting people out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.
Over the past year–following persistent, sustained advocacy by the Law Center and its allies–key federal agencies have taken strong positions against criminalization—and for constructive, housing based policies instead. These initiatives from the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness were highlighted at the Forum by key leaders from the agencies, as well as local leaders who discussed their impact.
The Forum’s goal was to build on this momentum and to engage a broader spectrum of organizations and allies to work together on a new Campaign to disrupt that cycle.
Advocates, attorneys, formerly homeless individuals, funders and government leaders from over 40 organizations gathered at the Forum, designed as an invitation-only strategy session.
Four major themes emerged: the importance of partnerships, the need to change the narrative, the need to build upon existing momentum, and the need to build resources.
Funders can play an important role in each area.
As Funders Together CEO Amanda Andere, who played a key role at the Forum, emphasized, philanthropy can help to bring people together across traditional divides. This is especially important: as noted at the Forum, key potential partners span a broad range of sometimes unlikely allies, including state and local decision makers, law enforcement, judges, educators, the faith community, health providers, business, funders and the press.
Changing the narrative is also critical. In keynote remarks, Xav Briggs of the Ford Foundation emphasized that the country is beginning to look at issues of inequality, but that issues of the criminalization of poverty are just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential for public attention. Funders can help frame and lift up these issues, as well as fund message development work.
How we frame the issues is key to engaging broader audiences and expanding our support. We need to win both hearts and minds, and be able to engage decision-makers and other key influencers on both sides of the aisle. We can take lessons from other movements: As Amanda noted at the Forum, the paid leave issue is gaining traction not just as a worker’s rights issue, but as a public health issue when restaurant workers are forced to come to work sick.
To carry out this work, we need resources, and a key theme at the Forum was how to expand resources for advocacy and organizing work. Funders can help by engaging potential supporters—including large foundations, family foundations, corporations, and individuals–as well as educating themselves on the issues and how strategies for supporting work on them.
The Forum helped us identify some specific next steps, including:
- Develop toolkits with key research, talking points, and policy models for advocates and decision makers that can be widely disseminated to spur systemic change across the country
- More deeply engage with philanthropy and individual donors not just as funders but as partners in connecting us to further opportunities;
- Develop a clear, data-driven, relatable narrative that supports the goal of stopping criminalization and investing instead in housing solutions;
Just a few days after the Forum, the White House announced a new Data Driven Justice Initiative that will help local communities across the country use data to reduce unnecessary incarceration. The Law Center is pleased to be one of the partner organizations in this effort.
It can be easier to fight against something negative—criminalization– than to fight for something positive–housing and services. But by combining them into one effort we can be better positioned to make real change. On November 15th, we and a core group of allies will be launching a new Campaign to do just that. To be added to the Campaign’s list serve, please send your name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope you will join us!
Find this post on the Funders Together blog, published September 28, 2016.
In April, 11 homeless people sued the city of Eureka to stop the planned eviction of a local homeless encampment where they are living. The federal court agreed with them, stopping the city from enforcing its anticamping law, saying such action would be unconstitutional. The court reasoned that because homeless people outnumber available shelter beds in Eureka (as they do in San Francisco), there is literally nowhere for them to live or sleep except outdoor public space.
Because humans must sleep, and because these individuals have nowhere else to go, the court ruled that punishing them for camping is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. Similar challenges have been raised around the country where homeless people outnumber available shelter options.
Betty Chinn’s Blue Angels “Village” is a storage container facility housing converted into shelter housing for some of the homeless individuals from the Palco Marsh in Eureka. Photo: Jessica M. Ernst, Special To The Chronicle Photo: Jessica M. Ernst, Special To The Chronicle Betty Chinn’s Blue Angels “Village” is a storage container facility housing converted into shelter housing for some of the homeless individuals from the Palco Marsh in Eureka.
The federal government has also weighed in on the constitutionality of laws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping in public. Last year, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest brief in a lawsuit challenging a camping ban in Boise, Idaho, asserting that criminally punishing homeless people for carrying out life-sustaining conduct in public is unconstitutional.
This position was underscored in subsequent remarks made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a recent White House convening on incarceration and poverty, and again in a Department of Justice community policing newsletter dedicated to the criminalization of homelessness.
Beyond constitutional concerns, the federal government has repeatedly condemned the criminalization of homelessness as ineffective and expensive public policy. For example, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness stated in its recent guidance on encampments: “The forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in the encampment.”
The federal government has also altered at least one critical funding stream — the nearly $2 billion in federal funds awarded to communities for homeless services — to prioritize funding for communities that have reduced or eliminated the criminalization of homelessness.
THE HOMELESS PROBLEM
An elderly homeless man sleeps on a sidewalk on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, April 30, 2016. The emergence of an older homeless population is creating daunting challenges for social service agencies and governments already struggling to fight poverty. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times) A formula to get homeless individuals off the streets A homeless encampment seen through the windows of building owner Doug MacNeil of Spiral Binding, on Monday, August 1, 2016, in San Francisco, Calif. Townsquared lets SF merchants voice issues with homelessness.
The tent ban placed on the November ballot by Farrell is precisely the kind of criminalization policy that the federal government aims to end and that have been unsuccessfully tried around the country to no benefit. Rather than promote public safety or open sidewalks as claimed, these laws harm communities by wasting millions in taxpayer dollars. Indeed, data from San Francisco’s budget office shows that the city spent in 2015 more than $20 million on enforcement of its long list of existing laws criminalizing homelessness, with no apparent reduction in homelessness.
In a city with thousands fewer shelter beds than homeless people, even policies that require an offer of one night of shelter before an arrest — a provision touted as an improvement over the current practice — will fail to reduce homelessness. Instead of bringing the housing and shelter options to scale, these policies simply redirect limited resources from one person in favor of another, and displace homeless encampments from one public area to the next — a practice aptly called by homeless organizers the “sidewalk shuffle.”
In the end, only one solution will sustainably end homelessness, and that is housing. A growing body of research has shown that housing is not only more effective at ending homelessness, but it is also cheaper than criminalizing it. When the solution costs less than the problem, common sense dictates how public money should be invested.
By bringing to scale permanent supportive housing programs, expanding access to housing subsidies, and removing barriers to affordable rental housing, San Francisco can realize reductions in homelessness that will never be achieved by treating the housing crisis as a criminal justice problem.
Find this post on the San Francisco Chronicle by Tristia Bauman, published August 9, 2016
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.
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:
- 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.
- Support education, outreach, training and technical assistance to your community learn how to use the new federal policies to make change locally.
- Support advocacy to build on the momentum of recent victories—at all levels of government.
- 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.