Looking Back: A Milestone Year for Homeless Advocacy

The year 2012 was an important milestone for the Law Center, as we marked the 25th anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Act—the first federal legislation to address homelessness—for which our founder and executive director was a primary advocate.  But while great progress has been made since McKinney-Vento’s passage, there is still much to be done.  That’s why we used the occasion to renew our commitment to finish what we started and end homelessness in America.

The year began with exciting achievements in our civil rights and human rights programs.  In February, after observing Sacramento denying sanitation and safe drinking water to homeless residents during a visit organized by the Law Center, the UN Special Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation wrote an unprecedented letter to Mayor Kevin Johnson, calling the City’s actions a blatant violation of human rights.  This sent a powerful message that the U.S. is accountable to its international treaty obligations and generated strong media coverage, which reinforced the human rights implications, helping to change the political playing field and empowering marginalized homeless advocates.

In April, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and Department of Justice released a report that condemns the criminalization of homelessness, drawing heavily on publications from the Law Center.

Moreover, it states for the first time that these laws violate not only the U.S. Constitution, but also human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture.

The Law Center also advanced this cause through litigation, winning a positive settlement of a federal court lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg challenging its ban on homeless people in city parks.  The settlement followed a victory for the Law Center and our partners in the federal appeals court, which ruled that homeless people have a “liberty interest” in being in public spaces.

In Rhode Island, the Law Center worked with local partners to draft and pass the nation’s first-ever Homeless Bill of Rights, which forbids discrimination based on housing status in all areas of life.  And in Wisconsin, the Law Center challenged a restrictive “voter ID” law that would have disenfranchised thousands of homeless, poor, elderly, disabled, and student voters in the 2012 presidential election.

In June, the U.S. Department of Education reported—for the first time—over one million homeless school children.  This was a startling reminder of how critical our education work is.  Throughout 2012, the Law Center helped dozens of homeless children exercise their right to remain in school and access vital support services through Project LEARN, a pro bono pilot program with partner DLA Piper.  The Law Center also continued its litigation challenging systemic violations of homeless kids’ rights in New York State, released a state-by-state review of laws affecting unaccompanied homeless youth, and began a project to ensure children made homeless by Hurricane Sandy continue to receive a stable education.

The Law Center worked with Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to draft legislation that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with new housing protections for domestic violence survivors.  Unfortunately, partisan gridlock has prevented its passage, although we continue to press for it.  But while Congress failed to move on this critical issue, we focused our energy on expanding housing protections at the state level, helping to revise the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act and producing a state-by-state guide on laws protecting survivors that will be released in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, we also advanced an aggressive agenda to prevent eviction and homelessness for renters of foreclosed properties.  We worked to make permanent—and improve lenders’ compliance with—the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA).  The Law Center educated lawyers and tenant advocates about PTFA; partnered with the National Association of Realtors to ensure its members understand the law; and released Eviction (Without) Notice: Renters and the Foreclosure Crisis, which highlights ongoing violations of PTFA and makes specific recommendations to improve renters’ protections.

With funding for the social safety-net being hotly contested, we were highly active in advocacy to protect and expand resources for homelessness prevention, housing, and supportive services as well.  In partnership with our allies, the Law Center ensured continued funding for critical HUD programs and educated lawmakers about the catastrophic impact sequestration would have had on homeless and poor people.  We also defended Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act, which gives homeless service providers access to unused government property at no cost, through Congressional advocacy and litigation, ensuring the law will continue to serve 2.4 million homeless persons each year.

The Law Center is deeply proud of what we and our supporters accomplished in 2012.  We are so grateful to the individual donors, corporate and foundation funders, and pro bono attorneys and law firms who make our work possible.  As we begin 2013, our resolve is stronger than ever.  Let none of us rest until we’ve achieved our common goal: realizing the human right to housing and ending homelessness in America.

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2 Responses to Looking Back: A Milestone Year for Homeless Advocacy

  1. Joseph James says:

    It was the best of years; it was the worst of years.
    It was the worst of years in outright hostility and villification of not only homeless people, but of poor people in general – in fact, of all people not wealthy enough to personally pay for everything they need. This had a somber predictability about it, since there is a fairly regular cycle of progresssivism/regressivism in America, with a low expected in or around 2012, as in 1980 – the year in which the choice was made to diminish longstanding progressive income tax
    rates at the expense of social programs & budgets, consumer/safety regulations, etc., etc. This was also near the beginning of wholesale `de-institutionalization’ of people by releasing them from mental institutions onto the streets of a society which had simply chosen to turn its collective back on some of the most vulnerable among us.
    It was the best of years in that we finally started to pull back from the precipice of spiritual death; the majority of Americans decided that they would not stand for the repeal of the `New Deal’ legislation of the 1930s nor of health care reform, as limited as it was, and that they agreed `the 1%’ were economically savaging`the 99%’.
    Furthemore, two important federal bodies – the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Justice Department(!) essentially ruled that they agree with the United Nations that laws criminalizing homelessness or the associated life-sustaining acts are serious violations of human rights, and that such laws are unconsitutional.
    If the cycle continues as it has for decades upon decades, we have the potential for major positive change (perhaps a general right to housing, perhaps living wage legislation,…) by around 2028. A long way off, but we need not wait to help create lasting change. This is an excellent time to push for the re-affirmation and even expansion of already existing case law, and constitutional law at the federal and state levels.
    American history clearly shows that the best known way to effect major progressive change is an intelligently coordinated campaign of direct action civil resistance/disobedience supported by pre-existing legal victories.
    Whoever wants to do their utmost to help bring about an end to widespread homelessness – or even poverty – would do well to support legislation and especially litigation in every possible way.
    We’ve seen the worst of times; now let’s create the platform for the best of times. – JJC

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