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Legal Advocacy: A Powerful Tool to End and Prevent Homelessness

Legal advocacy means more than simply going into court on behalf of an individual client; it is a multifaceted approach that includes outreach and education, policy reform and, when necessary, litigation.

Earlier this year, a mother in Brunswick, Ohio contacted the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, desperately seeking help. The family had just lost their home and her daughters, ages 12 and 14, were about to be thrown out of their own school—simply because they were homeless.

Within five days, with support from our national network of volunteer lawyers, we were able to get the girls back into their school, as required under the federal McKinney-Vento Act. There they maintained a measure of stability—and continued education and access to meals and basic health care–while their parents searched for housing.

Law is a powerful tool for change, and NLCHP, established in 1989, is the only national organization dedicated solely to legal advocacy to end and prevent homelessness. Legal advocacy means more than simply going into court on behalf of an individual client; it is a multifaceted approach that includes outreach and education, policy reform and, when necessary, litigation.

Education and outreach are essential. As in the example above, many homeless people are unaware of their rights, and government agencies are often unaware of their legal obligations. At NLCHP, we help homeless people, service providers and advocates know and assert these rights, and we help government agencies understand the law and best practices to implement it.

Second, laws and policies at all level of governments often have provisions–or gaps–that work against solutions to homelessness. For example, when the foreclosure crisis hit, we reviewed the law in all 50 states and found that tenants living in foreclosed properties had few rights, putting them at high risk of homelessness. Jointly with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, we published our findings and presented them to Congress, which then relied on our report to enact the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act—protecting millions of renter households.

Similarly, earlier this year, we presented our comprehensive national report on youth homelessness at a Texas conference of advocates, providers and funders—including the Frees Family Foundation.

Published last year with the National Network for Youth, our report reviewed relevant law in all 50 states, identified trends and made recommendations; we also presented recommendations specific to Texas. One Voice Texas then relied on our report and our continued support in its successful state advocacy to enact one of those recommendations.

At the local level, we partnered with a legal services provider in Seattle, WA —with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–to examine compliance with McKinney-Vento education rights in three counties. When we found violations, we developed remedial plans and published and disseminate best practices for implementation.

Finally, when all else fails, litigation has a role to play. For example, earlier this year, we won a major federal court victory against five federal agencies for violations of Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act, which makes unused federal properties available to non-profit organizations serving homeless people. Currently, such properties serve over 2 million people each year, offering housing, food and services. But the judge—appointed by President Reagan—held that the agencies have been “hiding” some 14,000 vacant properties, and ordered them to do more.

Legal advocacy is a high impact strategy that can drive positive change in people’s lives—and advance systemic solutions to homelessness. It can also mobilize new constituencies: NLCHP is fortunate to have the support of a network of major national law firms; in 2012 alone, we leveraged over $6 million in donated legal services. And, as eloquently stated in a recent article by Public Welfare Foundation President Mary McClymont—a leading proponent of funding for civil legal advocacy–the increased engagement and support of the philanthropic community is critical to this work.

maria_foscarinis.jpgMaria Foscarinis is founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Maria has advocated for solutions to homelessness at the national level since 1985. She was a primary architect of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the first major federal legislation addressing homelessness, and she has litigated to secure the legal rights of homeless persons.


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