Here in the Nation’s Capital, I feel both fear and hope as we enter the new year.
The siege on the Capitol brought into sharp relief the racism and hate that drive so many of the challenges we face—as a country and in our work at the Law Center. The failure of police response, especially compared to the overwhelming law enforcement presence at racial justice protests, made crystal clear the bigotry built into debates over “public safety.” And the silence of many elected leaders underscores that doing nothing in the face of injustice is not an option.
But despite these severe challenges, I am optimistic. President elect Biden has stated explicitly that housing should be a right, not a privilege—and this statement, along with the just announced initiative that proposes new funds for housing, are critical steps forward. But it will be up to us, to make sure he acts on it. The Law Center has developed specific policy proposals that we are sharing with the incoming Administration. Please join us.
We are also calling on Congress to act, including working with Rep. Jayapal to reintroduce her Housing Is A Human Right Act in the new session. Please support this effort and urge your representatives to do so.
We are also supporting state and local advocacy. Right now, efforts to promote the right to housing at the state level are underway in Connecticut, where advocates plan to reintroduce last year’s bill to implement housing as a human right; in California, where advocates in Oakland are building on last year’s proposal to amend its Constitution; and in New Jersey and New York where efforts are beginning.
In the November elections, voters in localities around the country—including LA county—approved ballot initiatives to shift funds away from law enforcement to housing and other community needs.
At the Law Center, we have been advocating for the human right to housing for decades—ever since I first traveled to Istanbul in 1996 for a UN conference on the topic and learned firsthand how critical it is in ending homelessness here in the U.S. It is still a long road forward, but we are making progress.
I am gratified that as I transition out of my role as executive Director in the coming months, we are on a strong trajectory toward this long-held goal.
Thank you for your support. Here’s to health, justice, and equity in 2021.
Founder & Executive Director
COVID Relief Package Helps Prevent and Address Homelessness
After extensive negotiation and significant advocacy by the Law Center and its partners well into the holiday period, on December 27, President Trump signed a bill including both funding for fiscal year 2021 and emergency COVID-19 relief into law. The bill contained essential features that had immediate, and will have ongoing, impact, including an extension of the Centers for Disease Control eviction moratorium through January 31 and $25 billion in emergency rental assistance.
Neither of these features were in the original Senate versions of the bill—and though neither is sufficient—the moratorium prevented 30-40 million families from facing imminent eviction, and the rental assistance will start to assist families with the $30-70 billion in back rent and utility payments owed since the beginning of the COVID crisis. Eviction is a driver of the spread of COVID, and because Black and Brown families have been hardest hit by the economic crisis, they are also 2-3 time more likely to become sick or die due to evictions.
The FY 2021 spending bill provides a modest increase over 2020 spending levels for housing, allowing for continued services at approximately the same level. Importantly, the bill cancels the homeless continuum of care funding competition, allowing service providers to receive funding similar to last year’s award without needing to spend time applying during this time when many are stretched to the limit.
These stopgap measures help prevent disaster for many, but make little dent in the systemic challenges of the lack of adequate affordable housing and the need for assistance to carry families through the pandemic and beyond. The Law Center will continue to work with its partners to address these in the year to come.
Victory in Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless v. Fall River
In March 2019, the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and two people experiencing homelessness filed suit with the ACLU of Massachusetts and McCarter & English against the City of Fall River to challenge the city’s use of a state panhandling statute.
Following a lower court victory, plaintiffs asked the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to hear the case to ensure the ruling was followed statewide, and because McCarter had collaborated with Law Center on other panhandling cases, they reached out to us to submit an amicus brief, which we, in turn, reached out to Mintz for pro bono assistance in producing. On December 15, 2020, the Court unanimously struck the statute in its entirety, thanking the Law Center for its amicus brief on the first page, and adopting much of brief’s positions.
Eric Tars, Legal Director at the Law Center, noted: “On the one hand, this case might be seen as just another nail in the coffin of these archaic and cruel anti-begging laws—consistent with the dozens of other cases decided on the issue since 2015. But this case has special significance, because most laws criminalizing homelessness are local ordinances, not state statutes, and this case creates statewide impact for the thousands of Massachusetts residents experiencing homelessness. And we are pleased that the state supreme court cited directly to our amicus brief in its opening footnote, and then echoed our points on the uniform and incontrovertible strength of the constitutional precedent. This is an extremely strong decision that will bolster our advocacy and that of our partners. around the country.”
“The amici prioritized addressing the fact that because homelessness has a disparate racial impact, panhandling laws, like other low-level violations directed at people experiencing poverty and homelessness, are part of the broader fabric of laws that create over-incarceration of Black and Brown communities. We at the Law Center are so happy to have the power of Mintz’s pro bono attorneys standing in solidarity with us on this.” We are also so grateful to have had the power of Mintz’s pro bono attorneys standing in solidarity with us on this.
Illegal Law Enforcement Commission Report Recommends Unconstitutional Reforms on Criminalizing Homelessness
Over the New Year’s weekend, the Trump Administration imposed continued damage to the rule of law and constitutional rights on their way out of office by issuing a biased report on law enforcement practices, making unconstitutional and ill-advised recommendations on the intersection of homelessness and law enforcement. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice issued the report despite a court ruling prohibiting it from doing so, due to its unbalanced composition and failure to comply with other laws.
The report correctly states that law enforcement is improperly tasked with managing social problems such as homelessness, but despite clear guidance from other federal agencies—and other branches of the Department of Justice itself—that criminalizing homelessness is ineffective and harmful, the report recommends reopening a closed debate on this approach. Most concerningly, it quotes an Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy calling compliance with the landmark 2018 Martin v. Boise ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals a “noble idea,” but saying the “mandate must be questioned.”
The Martin decision states: “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize…people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise that they had a choice in the matter.” Questioning this constitutional mandate can only mean punishing people for homelessness even if they have no choice but to be there.
Because U.S. homelessness disproportionately affects people of color—40% are Black, despite encompassing only 12% of the national population—and people of color are already at greater risk of being targeted by police, criminalization of homelessness is among the causes of the over-incarceration of people of color.
The Law Center calls on the incoming Biden Administration to withdraw this report immediately and to reaffirm that ending the criminalization of homelessness is the only constitutional approach, and helps not only those experiencing homelessness, but also prevents law enforcement from getting improperly involved in matters for which they are ill-trained and ill-equipped.
Measure J Approved in LA County
In the November 2020 election, Los Angeles County, California approved a charter amendment to allocate money from the general fund to alternatives to incarceration in an attempt to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice. Effective July 1, 2021, the charter amendment requires that 10% of the unrestricted general funds be appropriated to community investment, including rental assistance, housing vouchers, and transitional housing. This amendment aligns with the Law Center’s Housing Not Handcuffs campaign, which advocates for investment in housing over criminalization of homelessness, and studies find these actions to be more effective in permanently ending homelessness. Following the momentum of Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, ballot initiatives concerning law enforcement, such as Measure J, have been on ballots across the country.
New Housing Advocate in Congress
In 2020, Americans elected more women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community than ever before, making the 117th Congress the most diverse in history. As the first Black woman to represent her state in Congress, newly-elected Representative Cori Bush (MO-1) is a perfect example of this shift. As a registered nurse, pastor, and activist, Congresswoman Bush understands and values the effect of the lack of quality, affordable housing in her districts.
Her experience living unhoused with two children has mobilized her to advocate for those who are affected by homelessness and poverty. Throughout her campaign, Rep. Bush underscored her devotion to ensuring that housing is a basic human right. With lived experience of homelessness, Rep. Bush’s voice is essential in fighting for the right to housing in America, and the Law Center looks forward to working with her in the coming years.
NEWS from the LAW CENTER
We are excited to welcome several incredible new interns to the Law Center team!
Sarah Abara is currently a high school senior at the Madeira School, located in Mclean, Virginia. Her interests range from economics, sociology, and labor relations. Recognizing the importance of fighting for social justice amongst those suffering from homelessness, Sarah is eager to provide her efforts to the Law Center. She hopes to pursue her passion of becoming a lawyer and aspires to serve underrepresented minority populations across the country. One of her favorite quotes is by Marsha P. Johnson: “There is no pride for any of us without liberation for all of us.”
Nitan Shanas serves as a Policy Intern at the Law Center, where he works to support the Law and Policy team through critical research and advocacy. He is deeply passionate about helping people experiencing homelessness; having worked at two homeless shelters in Camden, NJ since his freshman year of college and having led several awareness campaigns on the issue. He is thrilled to be working and learning from an amazing staff while contributing to the critical goals of the Law Center.
Nitan is currently studying Economics, Urban Studies and Psychology at Rutgers University – Camden. After graduation, he plans to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration with the eventual goal of joining the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C