As we reach the end of 2019, a year that marked our 30th anniversary, I’m reflecting on all we accomplished. It’s been an amazing year of activism and impact, all toward our common goal of ending and preventing homelessness.
- We won a landmark victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Martin v. Boise, which ruled that criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping outside when there are no other options is unconstitutional. And as I write, we just got word that the U.S. Supreme Court denied our opponents’ petition for review. We won! Our landmark victory stands.
- We grew our innovative Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign to over 1,000 members, and released a major new report on the growth of laws criminalizing homelessness—drawing national press coverage and sparking policy debate.
- We launched a new HNH Justice Network for lawyers challenging laws criminalizing homelessness across the country, including a new online legal resource bank.
- We helped almost 250,000 homeless children and youth gain access to education and other critical rights and resources, with know-your-rights guides and a cutting-edge online manual.
- We advocated for reform of state laws to better support unaccompanied homeless youth, through our new 50-State Index on Youth Homelessness.
- We elevated our call for the human right to housing with our election guide; four presidential candidates have expressly called for the human right to housing, and several members of Congress have now introduced legislation.
These are all big victories with major impact. But even as we celebrate them, we plan aggressive advocacy to capitalize on opportunities and fight threats in 2020:
- We will work to implement our landmark ruling in Martin v. Boise, with a goal of moving cities in the 9th Circuit and beyond to Housing, Not Handcuffs.
- Just last month, the Trump Administration forced out the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness—a critical agency created in 1987 by the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act—replacing him with a proponent of punitive policies, and we are mobilizing with our allies to fight against harmful new initiatives.
- We are working with our allies in Congress to strengthen an existing provision of the McKinney-Vento Act that makes vacant federal property available for free to nonprofits to use for housing, shelter, and services for homeless people.
- We are publishing an updated 50-State Index analyzing the rights of unaccompanied youth to support our campaign, with True Colors United, to reform state laws and policies to end youth homelessness, and piloting an innovating outreach campaign to support homeless youth in Washington D.C.
- We continue to elevate housing in the presidential election through our Election Guide, as well as engaging international mechanisms as the U.S. comes up for its five year review of its compliance with its human rights commitments.
Founder & Executive Director
NEWS from the LAW CENTER
Law Center Releases Updated Housing Not Handcuffs Report
Last Tuesday, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty released its updated Housing Not Handcuffs report which shows that the criminalization of homelessness continues to increase throughout the country, despite strong evidence showing it is counter-productive and expensive.
Key elements of the report include detailed analysis of increasing criminalization laws nationwide, as well as the impact and costs of that legislation. The report also provides recommendations for consideration by policymakers, and highlights both good and bad policies currently at work across the country. The report received extensive press coverage from national and local outlets, and can be accessed here.
Supreme Court Lets Martin v. Boise Stand: Homeless Persons Cannot Be Punished for Sleeping in Absence of Alternatives
This past Monday, December 16, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by the city of Boise to review the case Martin v. Boise (formerly Bell v. Boise). This leaves in place earlier rulings by the 9th Circuit that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives. People experiencing unsheltered homelessness—at least in the 9th Circuit—can sleep more safely without facing criminal punishment for simply trying to survive on the streets.
The Supreme Court’s decision, issued without comment, means the April 2019 ruling is binding in the 9th Circuit, covering nine states including most of the western states, and carries national influence. The ruling also means that homeless individuals who have received criminal citations under Boise’s policy can now proceed with their constitutional claims against the City.
The Martin v. Boise case challenged Boise’s enforcement of its Camping and Disorderly Conduct Ordinances against persons experiencing homelessness—those who need to sleep in public in the absence of adequate housing or shelter. Last year, a panel of the 9th Circuit held that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” Following that ruling, the city of Boise petitioned the entire 9th Circuit to rehear the case (“en banc”), which was rejected in April. Boise then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and today the Court rejected that request, thereby affirming that within the 9th Circuit, “the Eighth Amendment preclude[s] the enforcement of a statute prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter.”
The Supreme Court’s decision can be read here. 9th Circuit court’s decision can be read here, and the en banc denial here.
Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019
On November 18, 2019, the House of Representatives approved the “Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019” (“RDRA”) in a bipartisan 290-118 vote. RDRA is important legislation that offers financial protections for low-income victims of presidentially-declared disasters, including persons who are housing insecure or homeless. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty worked with the National Low Income Housing Coalition to develop these protections for housing insecure or homeless survivors.
RDRA improves recovery for the most vulnerable people by permanently authorizing the “Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery” program, which appropriates funding to help communities affected by disasters rebuild and recover. By permanently authorizing the program, RDRA ensures that disaster relief funds reach victims most in need. For example, RDRA requires funding plans to prioritize the one-for-one replacement of destroyed or damaged public or federally subsidized housing units.
Additionally, RDRA promotes effective data sharing across agencies involved with disaster relief and requires HUD to make all the data it collected during disaster recovery public available. This includes racial and geographic data to prevent funds from being allocated in a discriminatory fashion. Though RDRA is still pending Senate approval, its bipartisan passage is a strong step forward.
Law Center Preparing for Possible Federal Policy Changes
Over the past months, President Trump has repeatedly disparaged and dehumanized people experiencing homelessness and reportedly been considering the razing of homeless encampments. In September, the White House Council of Economic Advisors published a white paper attempting to discredit the proven solution of Housing First, and stating that the streets were “too comfortable” for people experiencing homelessness, suggesting a potentially criminal justice-oriented response. Then, before Thanksgiving, Matthew Doherty, the former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) was ousted. On December 10, the Council confirmed Robert Marbut, whose past raises strong concerns, as his replacement. We are hearing that the Trump Administration is also poised to issue a new executive order that would potentially increase harmful criminalization practices and reduce the emphasis on housing as the solution to homelessness.
The Law Center is preparing to face these challenges in collaboration with our national and local allies and pro bono partners. The Law Center will defend policy that ensures housing-based solutions and fights against criminalization from attempts to weaken it through policy advocacy, and, if necessary, through litigation. We will mobilize the more than 1,000 participants in the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign to speak out against these threats. And we will use the national attention of this moment to ensure that not only will we prevent harm from coming to these policies, but that we carry a strong, affirmative message that housing is a human right, and that we know how to end homelessness by ensuring this right for all.
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day
National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day remembers those who have died because they did not have shelter. The day takes place each year on the longest night of the year, December 21st, and each memorial event is unique to its community. They often include readings of names, candles, prayers, personal remembrances, marches, moments of silence, and are usually held outdoors.
These events remind us why we must continue working towards ending homelessness—no person should die because of a lack of affordable housing. The Law Center believes that that in a society that has enough for all, no one should have to go without the basic necessities of life. Our vision is for an end to homelessness in America. A home for every family and individual will be a right and not a privilege; a reality, not just a goal.
As someone who is experiencing homelessness, Kelly Miller—who volunteers with the Law Center—highly encourages everyone to put forth the extra effort to make a human connection with those we witness living unsheltered. “Maintain active compassion and respect towards those less fortunate who are living in extreme adversity is a basic human factor,” Kelly said. “Do something as simple as smiling and conversing with them, acknowledging their human value and treating them with the respect they have earned.”
Anyone can coordinate an event, including advocates, service providers, organizations, people experiencing homeless and formerly homeless individuals/families, religious leaders, city representatives, students, and concerned citizens.
Changing Laws. Changing Lives.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to end and prevent homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.