February 2020

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Dear Friends—

Race and racism play pivotal—yet little discussed—roles in homelessness. Recent research shows that people of color are disproportionately represented in the homeless population—even more so than in the overall population of people experiencing poverty in the United States. Some 40% of people experiencing homelessness are Black, even though they only comprise 26% of those living in poverty and 13% of the overall population.

This is disturbing, but not surprising. Nationally, approximately half of all renters in this country are people of color, and they make up the majority of cost-burdened renters. In 2018, 55% of Black renters were cost-burdened, followed closely by Hispanic renters at 53%. This means they are paying more than 30% of their incomes for housing—and sometimes over 50%—putting them at risk of experiencing homelessness.

Nor is it a coincidence. It is a result of racist laws, policies, and attitudes that excluded and continue to exclude Black people from housing as both owners and renters, employment, education, and a whole host of other opportunities. While explicit discriminatory laws and policies are now mostly in the past, implicit policies, practices, and attitudes persist, as do laws and policies that, while race-neutral, are anything but in impact.

Among the latter are laws that criminalize people once they become homeless, regulating their use of public space. With roots in “Jim Crow” laws designed to police freed slaves, such laws are used to “sweep” homeless people out of sight. While they are applied to homeless people of all races, they are felt disproportionately by people of color, contributing to the trend of their over-representation in the criminal justice system.

February is Black History Month, but racial justice is imperative every month and every day. Racial equity and economic justice are deeply intertwined. Fighting to end homelessness in America also means, and requires, fighting for racial equity.

Maria Foscarinis

Founder & Executive Director

2019 State Index on Youth Homelessness Webinar Highlights

The Law Center and True Colors United released the 2019 State Index on Youth Homelessness this month. This is the second consecutive year that we have come together to evaluate all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness, and to make recommendations for reform.

The Index is an important resource for policymakers looking to improve their states’ response to youth homelessness and a critical tool for advocates to hold their states accountable. After we released our first Index, Douglas Argue, of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio, said:

“The State Index On Youth Homelessness has been tremendously beneficial …This tool has given us the ability to see, in one place, how several different systems and policies are impacting the vital work being done to get our youth off the streets and into stable, long-term housing. Additionally, it has given us a reliable gauge to assess the advocacy needed to improve the state’s response to homeless youth and a solid source of information to learn from states that are currently more successful.”

On February 5, 2020, authors Brandy Ryan of the Law Center and Dylan Waguespack of True Colors United, joined by Amanda Clifford, Chair of the Policy Committee of the National Youth Forum on Homelessness, hosted a webinar to discuss this year’s findings as well as strategies that advocates and state officials can use to advance the policies recommended by the State Index.

Over 160 individuals from across the country tuned in to learn how to end the cycle of homelessness and increase youth’s prospects for a brighter future. We were pleased that 96% of attendees plan to use the information in the future. The webinar is archived and available here.

Judge Overturns Conviction for Delivery of Food and Water to Homeless Migrants

In an important, precedent-setting case, a federal judge on February 4, 2020, found that four volunteers should not have been criminally prosecuted by the federal government and convicted by a magistrate for leaving food and water for migrants in the desert. Judge Rosemary Marquez of the US District Court in Arizona held that the work was an expression of the volunteers’ deeply-held religious beliefs, as the project was part of a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The judge found that the federal government’s efforts to prevent this exercise of beliefs violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; The judge rejected the apparent “gruesome” argument by the government that the denial of food and water would result in more deaths and thus discourage others from crossing the border. The judge noted that 32 sets of human remains were found in 2017 alone in the area where the food distribution took place. The volunteers were represented pro bono by the Washington, DC office of O’Melveny & Myers as well as local counsel in Arizona.

The case has significance for efforts to curb the distribution of food to homeless people, as has been done by cities across the country—at least where the action is motivated by religious belief. It is similar to a successful challenge brought by the Law Center and pro bono partner Akin Gump in Dallas, Texas, where more than 7,000 homeless residents struggle with hunger every day. Thanks to that suit, Big Heart Ministries v. City of Dallas, unfair city laws and policies that prevented private, charitable organizations from providing food to them as part of their religious mission were invalidated.

Favorable Settlement of Challenge to “Sweeps” in Pierce County, WA

Last month, the Law Center and our pro bono partner Perkins Coie reached a settlement agreement with Pierce County, Washington, in Boyle v. Puyallup et al., a lawsuit challenging the seizure and destruction of six homeless people’s property during sweeps of their camps. Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Pierce County enacted a formal County encampment clean-up policy providing advance written notice and free property storage to people living outside, and also paid monetary damages to plaintiffs. Previously in the case, plaintiffs accepted an offer of judgment against the City of Puyallup, another defendant, for monetary damages and proof of a citywide policy also requiring notice and property storage.

New lawsuit filed in in Montgomery, AL

This month, the Law Center filed a lawsuit to stop the City of Montgomery and the State of Alabama from enforcing unconstitutional state laws criminalizing begging for help. The caseSingleton v. City of Montgomery, filed along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Alabama, is brought on behalf of people like Ricky Vickery—a man who has been repeatedly jailed for begging, often by simply holding a sign saying, “homeless and hungry.” Along with the complaint, Plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of Alabama’s begging bans on First Amendment free speech grounds.

News from the Law Center

Law Center Welcomes New Arrivals

Our team is expanding, and we could not be happier to introduce these incredible new members of our staff:

Carlton Martin came to the Law Center from the Indiana Supreme Court, where he served as a Staff Attorney for access to justice issues. Additionally, he was recognized as one of Indiana’s top 15 Up-and-Coming Legal Leaders in the Law in 2019. Carlton serves as the Law Center’s Pro Bono Manager, responsible for handling relationships with the Law Center’s major law firm partners that annually provide over $5 million in pro bono services.

Whittni Holland is a native of Southern Maryland and earned a BA in Psychology from Elon University and a Master of Social Work degree concentrated in Community, Administration, and Policy Practice from Howard University. She serves as the Development Associate at the Law Center, where she works to support the Development and Communications team through fundraising and administrative efforts. Whittni is also a Licensed Social Worker in the state of Maryland.

Melissa Anoh is originally from Maryland but claims Rwanda and Ivory Coast as her home. In 2018, Melissa received her Master of Social Work with a concentration in Social Change. She serves as the Program and Networks AmeriCorps VISTA where she oversees the planning and execution of the National Forum on the Human Right to Housing. Prior to the Law Center, she was working at a women’s shelter in Montgomery County, assisting them in obtaining better housing.

Thanks for joining us in welcoming Carlton, Whittni, and Melissa to the team!


Save the Date! The 2020 National Forum on the Human Right to Housing is June 3-4 in Washington, DC

Each year, the Law Center hosts a National Forum on the Human Right to Housing. Bringing together people who are currently or formerly homeless, legal professionals, government officials, and advocates from across the country. Held in downtown Washington, District of Columbia, the Forum provides an opportunity to share information, tools and strategies for ending and preventing homelessness and advancing the human right to housing.

Our National Forum provides a valuable opportunity for people and organizations that do diverse work in the housing and homelessness sector to work together to create innovative and effective ways to fight homelessness. Be on the lookout for more information about the sessions and content of this year’s Forum. For a summary report of last year’s Forum, click here.

Law Center in the Media

Landscape Architecture Magazine (2/4/2020) Public Space, No Exceptions

The Journal (1/30/2020) Give him a chance

Colorado Politics (1/29/2020) COVER STORY | Denver’s never-ending road home

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (1/25/2020) Hostility against the homeless is on the rise

Denver Business Journal (1/23/2020) BIGGER THAN THE BAN

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.


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