People seem to be drawn to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in many different ways. Some come to us because they are fighting to keep homeless children in school. Others come because they are interested in our work to prevent survivors of domestic violence from becoming homeless. And the list goes on. For me, it was an interest in (disgust with) the criminalization of homelessness. As a graduate student studying the rhetoric of homelessness in the United States, I was appalled by the growing trend toward punishing people for living their lives in public, especially when there’s no other option for them.
Since I’ve joined the Law Center’s staff, I have learned about countless ways it has influenced federal and local policies to both prevent and end homelessness. But on Thursday night, at our 12th Annual McKinney-Vento Awards for homeless advocates, I was most deeply impacted by the remarks of our guests on criminalization.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan delivered the evening’s keynote address, “Ending Homelessness in Our Time.” As he spoke about the need for continued advocacy and about the hope of the new federal plan to prevent and end homelessness, he said, “You and I both know that criminalizing those who are homeless is not only morally wrong — it also does nothing to stop homelessness or improve the circumstances of those without a home. It serves only to increase costs — both in taxpayer dollars and in human suffering.”
Surely, this is a compelling reason to stop these kinds of policies. But if that’s not reason enough, Barbara Ehrenreich, best-selling author and journalist, and the evening’s Stewart B. McKinney honoree, did what she does best: she put a face on the issue. Recounting the story of a homeless gentleman who was ticketed for sleeping outside, then pulled from shelter to a jail cell while staying at shelter for this offense, she decried these practices:
“I’m very impatient when nice people, liberal people, wring their hands and say, ‘What can we do about poverty? Isn’t it so intractable and deeply rooted and multi-causal and multi-generational?’ And I answer, ‘No, it’s very simple. The first thing we have to do is just stop the meanness. Stop the persecution. Stop kicking people when they’re already down.’ That’s what I’ve learned from the National Law Center.”
All of the evening’s honorees, including Dechert LLP, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, and the Elzer Family, have fought to help protect people experiencing homelessness. And I, after sharing this evening with them, am renewed and inspired in my commitment to being a part of finding solutions to end and prevent homelessness in our country. No one should be without a home, and no one should be punished for not having a home.
Special thanks go to Bruce & Lori Laitman Rosenblum, presenting sponsors, and the Leonsis Foundation, event sponsors. Click here to learn more about our sponsors.
Not able to join us? See more photos from the awards here.
-Whitney Gent, Development & Communications Director