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To End Homelessness, We Need To End The Criminalization Of It


Each year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty hosts a National Forum on the Human Right to Housing. This year’s Forum, held June 27, 2016, in Washington, D.C., focused on the intersection of criminal justice and housing policies and how they work together to perpetuate homelessness.  

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 jbrewer@nlchp.org. We hope you will join us!

(Image provided by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Left to right: Richard Cho, Council of State Governments; Matthew Doherty (speaking), USICH; Ann Oliva, HUD; Chiraag Bains, DOJ; Eric Tars, NLCHP; and Kayvon Behroozian, White House Domestic Policy Council)


Maria_Foscarinis.jpgMaria Foscarinis is the Executive Director and Founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. In the mid-1980s, Maria was a litigator at Sullivan & Cromwell, a large corporate law firm, where she volunteered to represent homeless families on a pro bono basis. After seeing the impact of first-rate legal advocacy on the lives of homeless people, she left the firm to dedicate herself to that work full-time. In 1989, she established the Law Center with one goal in mind: ending homelessness in America.

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Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

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