The Road to Geneva – Peaceful Assembly

This is the sixth edition of a blogs series (see blog intro) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

The Right to Assembly is important for homeless persons for many reasons. Homeless individuals who assemble into communities, such as tent cities, have an increased sense of safety, privacy, belonging, and security. Assembly can act as a form of protest – a refusal to remain invisible. Ordinances and law enforcement practices that evict, penalize, and disperse homeless communities violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 21 Right to Assembly.    

Article 21 of the ICCPR protects “intentional, temporary gatherings of several persons for a specific purpose.” Homelessness creates extremely precarious situations, and the right to assemble enables homeless people to mitigate some forms of physical and psychological vulnerability by giving and receiving support, sharing resources, and protecting one another. Next week in Geneva, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will argue before the UN Human Rights Committee that the unjustified restrictions on homeless people in their use of public space undercuts people’s Article 21 right to assemble.

Homeless communities are often specifically targeted by law enforcement for removal, dispersal, and eviction. In 2007, police in St. Petersburg, FL, forcibly evicted people from a tent city and used box cutters and blades to slash (and permanently destroy) twenty tents. In Orlando, FL, Food Not Bombs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), brought suit against a city ordinance that prohibited sharing food with more than twenty-five people in downtown public parks without a permit – only two permits were allowed per year, essentially road-blocking attempts to consistently provide food. People that continued to supply food faced sixty days in jail and a $500 fine.

A federal court judge struck down the Orlando ordinance, finding it unconstitutional to individual’s freedom of speech and freedom of assembly rights. However, ordinances and law enforcement practices that evict and disperse homeless communities continue to be prevalent in cities across the U.S. Advocates should make the strong argument that these ordinances restricting assembly violate U.S. Constitutional rights and International law under ICCPR article 21.

In the US Interagency Council on Homelessness report, Searching Out Solutions, the U.S. government itself has recognized that criminalization does not reduce homelessness or protect public order, and ordinances that restrict the assembly of homeless people cannot be justified by public policy. It is crucial that advocates fight the prohibition of using public spaces, due to the direct hardship it poses on homeless individuals. Advocates should also fight to maintain people’s rights in the public arena where homeless individuals often experience increased security, can protest laws that attempt to make them invisible, and create community through assembly.  

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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The Road to Geneva: Privacy

This is the fifth edition of a blogs series (see blog intro) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

People facing homelessness essentially live in the public sphere. A concept of privacy usually comes from a person’s personal belongings and is confined to personally created shelters. This modicum of privacy is often destroyed by city-approved sweeps that result in the arbitrary seizure and frequent destruction of people’s personal property. Often, belongings are seized when people are asleep, momentarily away, or detained by law enforcement. This practice of city sweeps and property destruction violates article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

Article 17 of the ICCPR protects against “arbitrary or unlawful interference with…[a person’s] privacy.” At next week’s UN Human Rights Committee hearing on U.S. ICCPR compliance, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will argue that the prevalent U.S. city sweeps, which often lead to destruction of homeless person’s minimal property, constitute arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy.   

The repercussions of sweeps alone are significant enough to render them arbitrary and unreasonable. In Fresno, CA, homeless individuals reported that police destroyed clothing and medicine belonging to individuals and families with no alternative shelter, storage places, or housing. In nearby Los Angeles, CA, the city recently faced its fifth lawsuit since 1987 over the city’s practice of seizing homeless people’s property during sweeps. This violation of people’s privacy under Article 17 coincides with U.S. constitutional violations related to Fourth Amendment illegal search and seizures of people’s property. Advocates across the country can make the strong argument that city sweeps violate international law and U.S. Constitutional rights.    

The Law Center’s report, Criminalizing Crisis, notes that cities often rationalize these sweeps by saying that they “clean-up” areas of the city and are important for public health and safety. However, this reasoning does not address the underlying need for housing and creates more of a public safety issue by confiscating and destroying the minimal property (including identification, medication, clothing, and food) that homeless individuals own. These belongings are often vital to ensuring employment, obtaining government resources, accessing healthcare, and entering housing programs.

Since the U.S. fails to provide people with adequate shelter, individuals and families have no choice but to live in public. Makeshift encampments and shelters create security and privacy for people with no housing alternatives. City sweeps and corresponding destruction of property are an unreasonably harsh response. The sweeps do little to protect public safety and instead do more to further harm people who have minimal survival resources. HRC recognition of Article 17 privacy violations by the U.S. related to prevalent city sweeps, could help us advocate for housing alternatives across America as a more productive approach than the current perpetuation of poverty through property destruction.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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The Road to Geneva: Liberty and Security of the Person

This is the fourth edition of a blog series (see blog intro) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

People experiencing homelessness in America are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. Local ordinances and police practices that criminalize behaviors that homeless people cannot avoid routinely result in unjustified citations, and often arrests. As noted in yesterday’s blog, these citations and arrests often create a vicious cycle of poverty. Detention and criminal records lead to loss of income, withdrawal of social benefits, and denial of access to housing programs for homeless persons and their families. 

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will lobby the UN Human Rights Committee on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) next week in Geneva. We will advocate to HRC committee members on the issue of arbitrary laws and detention of homeless persons in the U.S. under Article 9 of the ICCPR. Article 9 stipulates that, “everyone has the right to liberty and security of person…and no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.” Laws that criminalize behaviors that homeless people cannot avoid and that are enforced in a selective and arbitrary manner violate Article 9.  

A prime example of selective enforcement and arbitrary arrest can be found in the Columbia, South Carolina ordinance mentioned in the first blog. The city’s plan would ban homeless persons from downtown, force them to relocate to a shelter out of town, station a police officer between the shelter and the city to prevent homeless persons from returning to the city, and provide a telephone hotline number for residents to report homeless people to be picked up by police for simply walking downtown. Under the plan, the rights of homeless persons to exist in and move freely throughout public spaces were completely and arbitrarily diminished. After intervention from the Law Center and local justice advocates, the plan was scaled back, however it represents the increased attempts by U.S. cities and law enforcement to address homelessness by making it a crime.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was very critical of how “law enforcement officials often use ‘poverty’, ‘homelessness’, or ‘disadvantage’ as the indicator of criminality rather than actual or alleged criminal activity.” City councils and law enforcement often defend these forms of criminality under the guise of public safety. However, criminality ineffectively addresses these goals; the temporary arrest of homeless individuals will not deter people from sleeping, sitting, moving around, and begging in public when those are the only means of survival. Housing programs are the more cost effective approach, and are also the only alternative that addresses future survival behaviors in public, respects the basic human rights of homeless persons, and creates real solutions for the entire community.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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The Road to Geneva: Criminalization – Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading

This is the third edition of a new blogs series (see first and second blog entries) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

Every night in America homeless people are harassed for something as simple as lying down in public. Once cited, their criminal records become an additional barrier to accessing housing, employment, and government benefits. This process of criminalization turns into a vicious cycle.

U.S. constitutional interpretations of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment should include arresting or fining homeless people for necessary human functions such as sleeping or going to the bathroom in public spaces when no alternatives exist. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stipulates that no citizen should be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The language of Article 7 parallels the U.S. 8th Amendment which protects against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Thus, an acknowledgment by the Human Rights Committee (HRC) that U.S. laws criminalizing homelessness violate Article 7 of the ICCPR could give strength to U.S. advocates fighting these laws on behalf of homeless clients across the country.

A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found that such criminalization leaves homeless people with “no viable place to sleep, sit, eat, or drink…[and] can thus have serious adverse physical and psychological effects on persons living in poverty, undermining their right to an adequate standard of physical and mental health and even amounting to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Public spaces often function as places of last resort for people experiencing homelessness.

In partnership with local advocates, the Law Center filed a complaint in Boise, ID, on behalf of homeless individuals who were cited for sleeping in public. The complaint stated that “anywhere from 2,000 to 4,500 people are homeless on any given night, while shelters only have beds for approximately 300.” The question then becomes, where do we expect the 4,200 people to sleep? The criminalization approach misdirects state resources away from more cost effective approaches such as transitional housing and short or long-term shelters. The Law Center will be defending against the City of Boise motion for summary judgment in the case next month in District Court.  

The HRC added criminalization of homelessness as an ICCPR violation for its discriminatory effects under Articles 2 and 26 (see blog post on 10-4-13) to its list of issues for the Oct. 17-18th hearings of the U.S. on ICCPR compliance. However, Article 7 violations have not been established by the HRC. Representatives from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) who will attend the U.S. ICCPR hearings intend to lobby HRC committee members on Article 7 violations in hopes that the HRC stance on the issue could have a real impact on local advocacy both in and out of court. HRC acknowledgment of U.S. Article 7 violations would create persuasive advocacy arguments on 8th Amendment claims and could help reframe laws criminalizing homelessness as cruel, inhuman, and degrading.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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The Road to Geneva: Criminalization and Discrimination

This is the second edition of a new blogs series (see first blog entry from 10-3-13) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading. The Law Center will host a webinar on the topic of criminalization and the ICCPR next Monday, Oct. 7th 2013.

The harms of the criminalization of homelessness are particularly acute for homeless people who experience one or multiple intersecting forms of discrimination in U.S. society. The impacts of U.S. laws that criminalize homelessness, such as voter disenfranchisement, are especially severe for people of color, immigrants, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, people with disabilities, and others who have historically and currently experience discrimination in the U.S.

Both Article 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protect against discrimination. Article 2 of the ICCPR ensures all rights articulated in the treaty “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political, or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Article 26 notes that people “are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of law.” In regards to discrimination, stark disparities exist in the U.S. regarding who disproportionality experiences homelessness. For instance, The 2010 Census estimated that roughly 25.2% of the U.S. population is nonwhite, but non-white people represent about 60% of the homeless people in shelters. The U.S. Special Rapporteur on racism noted, “the enforcement of minor law enforcement violations…take[s] a disproportionately high number of African American homeless persons to the criminal justice system.”

As related to LGBT issues, a recent survey of service providers for homeless youth found that LGBT youth comprised approximately 40% of their clientele. And, transgender people face one of the highest rates of homelessness in the U.S. with corresponding statistic of nearly 30% of transgender people having been turned away from shelter because of gender identity. A large number of people in these protected sub-groups also face discriminate and disproportionate police enforcement practices. 

After the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) and the U.S. Human Rights Network advocated to the HRC, the issue of discrimination and criminalization of homelessness was added to the HRC list of issues (in violation of Articles 2 and 26) to which the U.S. must respond at the HRC hearings in Geneva, Oct 17-18th. We hope that the Law Center advocacy to the HRC on the issue can lead to HRC Concluding Observations urging the U.S. to raise awareness and address criminalization laws that disproportionately impact people of color, LGBT persons, immigrants, and additional groups discriminated against in the U.S. Those Concluding Observations can be used as a tool for local advocates to reference and to create local practices that proactively address discrimination such as a local Bill of Rights for Homeless Persons.  

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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The Road to Geneva – A New Blog Series on U.S. Criminalization of Homelessness and International Law

The criminalization of homelessness is an urgent issue in the United States. In less than ten days, representatives from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will travel to Geneva to ensure that the United States is held accountable to homeless individuals on the topic. In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Committee will conduct its fourth periodic review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). From now until the conclusion of committee proceedings, the Law Center will bring you a blog mini-series with a focus on how U.S. laws that criminalize homelessness violate particular articles of the ICCPR.

As required of complying states, the U.S. submitted its latest report on compliance to the HRC in December, 2011. In collaboration with the U.S. Human Rights Network, the Law Center has consistently used advocacy tools to ensure that U.S. human rights violations in conflict with the U.S. report were apparent to the HRC. The Law Center submitted its shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading, during the HRC review to further demonstrate how U.S. laws target homeless individuals. For instance, local ordinances that allow police to arrest individuals for lying or sitting in public violate the protection against arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 9).

Recently the Columbia, South Carolina, City Council created a plan to exile the entire homeless population from the downtown area through relocation to a remote shelter outside the city. Under the plan, homeless individuals could have faced arrest for returning to the downtown area without an appointment. Advocates, guided by the ICCPR, were able to ensure that the plan was rescinded.

ICCPR rights differ from laws recognized by U.S. courts and thus, help to fill in gaps for domestic advocates defending the human rights of homeless individuals. In our shadow report, we describe six ICCPR articles currently being violated. Each day leading up to Geneva, we will bring you analysis of a new ICCPR article and corresponding U.S. violations.

We hope that this blog series will articulate U.S. violations in ways that can help human rights advocates. The Law Center will host a webinar on World Habitat Day, Oct 7th 2013, regarding international law advocacy tools. At a recent American University Washington College of Law event, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged U.S. citizens to engage in international law to defend victims of human rights violations in the U.S. We aim to shed light on the U.S. ICCPR violations in solidarity with advocates across the country as we collectively attempt to combat cruel and degrading treatment of homeless persons here at home where our domestic laws fall short.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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Criminalization of Homelessness: From Europe to Eugene

In November, 2012, the Hungarian Constitutional Court won international acclaim when it struck down a law that criminalized homelessness. That acclaim turned to condemnation as the lead political party responded by changing the Constitution to condone local authorities who criminally penalize people for consistent presence in public spaces. Disputes between the Hungarian Government and local advocates have been fueled in recent years by a rise in laws that penalize the basic existence and needs of homeless persons. The Hungarian Parliament is currently debating modification to the State’s Penal Code that defines street homelessness as a crime punishable by fines or jail. The Government’s consistent actions to create and protect laws that target homeless people exemplify the growing trend to criminalize homelessness, both abroad and here in the U.S.

The international community is responding, however. Criminalization of homelessness will be in the international spotlight as hundreds of advocates gather in Geneva, Switzerland, October 17-18, 2013 for the Human Rights Committee (HRC) Review on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) has strategically advocated to the HRC through submitting its shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading, detailing how criminalization violates international law, and the HRC responded by placing the criminalization on its list of key issues for the Review. Representatives from NLCHP will attend the HRC hearings in Geneva to ensure U.S. accountability, and now advocates world-wide can point to the growing international record against criminalization of homelessness to support their advocacy.

Members of the NLCHP team recently drafted an article for the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless’ (FEANTSA) newsletter, due out later this month, which chronicles the agency’s advocacy efforts leading up to the HRC hearings. NLCHP shares the HRC review model of advocacy with its international allies to ensure that human rights accountability becomes the norm. We hope raising the issue of criminalization with the HRC can support similar useful human rights campaigns in places such as Hungary. HRC acknowledgment of criminalization as a priority issue gives backing to human rights advocates across the globe as they contest criminally punishing individuals for basic life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, eating, or eliminating bodily wastes when no legal alternatives exist.

In contrast to the activities in Hungary, the Eugene, OR City Council recently approved a pilot program to allow city-monitored camping by homeless persons on selected sites. The program was approved with the understanding that a successful pilot could lead to additional sites around the city. While acknowledging this is not a permanent solution, Eugene is taking a positive step toward upholding the human rights of its citizens by providing space and sanitation resources in place of more costly arrests and imprisonment.       

On World Habitat Day, Oct. 7th, 2013, NLCHP will host a webinar regarding its advocacy on the issue of criminalization to the HRC. World Habitat Day is also the start of the annual Zero Evictions Days campaign held by the International Alliance of Inhabitants. The webinar will provide examples of how the advocacy on criminalization at the international level has led to successes in the U.S. and how such tools can be shared amongst human rights advocates around the world.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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Helping Improve U.S Housing Through International Standard Setting

The economic and foreclosure crises have severely limited the availability of shelter and adequate housing in the United State and as a result, have exacerbated our nation’s homelessness crisis. Many individuals and families are forced to create their own shelters and sleep in public places without a send of security in their housing or over their belongings. Moreover, individuals experiencing homelessness are routinely penalized and harassed for life-sustaining activities they have no choice but to engage in due to their homelessness. These problems reflect global trends, and international human rights experts are taking steps to uphold the rights of poor and homeless persons.

 

Over the course of the last year, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has been conducting an extensive, two-part study on security of tenure. Security of tenure is a central element of the right to adequate housing and compels countries to provide legal protection from forced evictions and harassment. The global tenure security crisis, however, is not limited to forced evictions. In fact, it has taken multiple forms including displacement resulting from development projects, natural disasters, and conflicts, land grabbing and insecure tenure arrangements for urban dwellers.

 

The Special Rapporteur is focusing her study on the human rights obligations of countries to secure tenure and whether there are current policies in use that can be promoted as positive examples. The first phase of her study was completed in 2012 with the culmination of a report on the right to adequate housing and non-discrimination as key elements of the right to an adequate standard of living. Still in progress, however, is the second phase where the Special Rapporteur is consulting with countries and advocates, like NLCHP, emphasizing tenure security for urban poor.

 

NLCHP has submitted a report to support the Special Rapporteur in her assessment of tenure practices in the United States. Our analysis commends the U.S. for taking initial steps to respond to tenure insecurity including the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, specifically Title V, and by enacting the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosures Act. Our report also encourages the U.S. government to increase protections. One offered suggestion is the conversion of vacant properties into community land trusts, creating affordable housing for those in need.

 

As Congress debates deeper cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget, comprehensive support for security of tenure and an end to homelessness in the United States is more urgent than ever. With the help of NLCHP’s report, the Special Rapporteur’s complete security of tenure study, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014, will be a useful tool for domestic advocates as they combat these crises across the nation.

-By Nicole McAllister

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It’s Been an Honor and a Privilege

Three months ago I began my incredible journey as the human rights fellow at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP).  As a partner organization of Northeastern School of Law’s (NUSL) Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, NLCHP offers current law students an invaluable learning opportunity to gain hands-on experience of legal advocacy in the United States, specifically within the context of international human rights.

At the conclusion of my first year at NUSL, I was eager to take advantage of an NLCHP fellowship in Washington, D.C. – and to take a hiatus from classroom lectures! What I did not know at that time was how much I would appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow as a legal intern and professional.  I was also unaware of how invested I would be in NLCHP’s mission: using the law to prevent and end homelessness.

Nicole McAllister representing the Law Center at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference

Over the course of my fellowship I was involved with several projects under the leadership of my supervisor, Eric Tars. One focus of my work this summer involved the review of the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As the human rights arm of NLCHP, Eric and the Law and Policy team have been participating in the review by advocating for the rights of individuals experiencing homeless, with a particular focus on criminalization of homelessness. During the review process, advocates like NLCHP can submit shadow reports to supplement the United States’ ICCPR compliance report to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee. I was able to participate in drafting NLCHP’s shadow report to influence the Committee’s concluding observations of U.S. compliance with its treaty obligations, but equally importantly, also see how NLCHP used the opportunity of the international review to create new opportunities for domestic advocacy.

This summer I was also able to research and compile a new report on security of tenure in the United States. When complete, this report will be submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing to support her security of tenure study. Again, the focus is not on developing international legal standards in the abstract, but to make them specifically applicable to issues housing and homelessness advocates in the U.S. are confronting.  Through drafting the security of tenure and shadow reports as well as my participation in several other NLCHP projects, I have been able refine my legal research and writing skills as well as significantly expand my knowledge of the homelessness crisis and its underlying causes in the United States.

My involvement in many significant and diverse reports and projects, Eric’s skilled leadership, and the general camaraderie among NLCHP’s staff and interns contribute heavily to my very positive view of my fellowship this summer. I hope to stay involved with NLCHP as I continue my law school studies and will remain an active supporter of the movement to prevent and end homelessness.

-Nicole McAllister, Human Rights Legal Intern

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Personal Essay by a Homeless Young Mother

Greetings  readers!

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tanea Ezell. I am a young adult mother to an exquisite 21 month old toddler boy. This wonderful opportunity to write a blog post was presented to me at a panel for Washington D.C.’s homeless teen mothers. I had the honor of being one of the mothers on the panel. It was a great experience to be able to advocate for my community. At the time, I was and had been homeless for a 1 ½ year.

Life as whole in motherhood is challenging. Life as a homeless, single, teen mother, bares many more challenges. I strongly believe that these daily challenges are durable and to a degree necessary for life learned lessons.

One of the questions asked on the panel was “Do you think there was any one thing that led you to your current situation?” I replied, “Having my son at the age of 18 in reality was too soon, based on the fact that I didn’t get the chance to focus on independence and stability first. But my son didn’t put a damper on my future; he just added a twist to it. As far as my living situation goes, I saw it as a stepping stone to get where I want to be in life.”

I am a strong believer in the things that I say. Everyone has to start somewhere. As humans, we all need a support system to succeed in life. With that being said, a part of life is a sob story that a majority of people have.  Life is about overcoming these stories. Some of the most influential people come from poverty.

Success is all about the inner desire to succeed. Being a homeless teen mother did not conquer me or my child. We are not a statistic. I believe my experience in this period in my life has taught me valuable lessons and traits, such as diligence, patience, appreciation, gratitude, and work ethic. Workers are winners!

I’m currently reading a phenomenal book by the awesome Zig Ziglar titled, “See you at the Top”. This book has a quote that I live by daily, and it states, “Man was designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness.”

Thank you  for taking the time to read the thoughts of a young mother still grasping the concept of life.

Much Pleasure,

Tanea Ezell

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