Every year more than 3.5 million people find themselves homeless in the U.S. We believe housing is a human right. Which is why we fight so hard to hold the U.S. accountable to international standards, to prevent homelessness for renters, and to create homes and communities for homeless people using surplus government property. In addition, we work hard to prevent economically vulnerable domestic violence survivors from becoming homeless.
The Law Center leverages its legal expertise and the pro bono power of the private bar in its fight to establish a right to housing in the United States. We believe no man, woman, or child should be without a safe place to call home. According to an April 2013 report from the MacArthur Foundation, almost three-quarters of the public also believes that improving access to decent, affordable, and stable housing is good for the safety and economic well-being of our neighborhoods and communities.
Bringing the right to housing home
Safe, affordable housing is a fundamental human right enshrined in numerous international treaties and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But with over 3.5 million people homeless each year, the United States has a long way to go to recognize this right.
For years, the Law Center has promoted the human right to housing through advocacy with the federal government, public education campaigns, and strategic participation in international reviews of U.S. housing policy by the United Nations. In fact, in 2012 the Law Center secured – for the first time in history – an admission by the U.S. that homelessness implicates its human rights obligations. We’re changing the way policymakers and the American people think about housing, with one goal in mind: creating an enforceable right to safe, affordable housing.
Preventing economically vulnerable domestic violence survivors from losing their housing
Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness nationally. Indeed, one out of every four homeless women is homeless because of violence committed against her. With affordable housing in short supply and federal housing programs under-resourced, low-income domestic violence survivors and their children are often forced to choose between life with an abuser and homelessness. Further, they are often evicted for disruption or damages caused by their abusers.
The Law Center works to improve access to housing for domestic violence survivors and their children. We advocate for legislative changes on the national and local levels that will improve housing protections for survivors. And we train advocates, social service groups, and public housing providers across the country on the housing protections provided by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Landmark housing rights amendments to VAWA were passed in 2006 after years of advocacy by the Law Center and others. They protect women living in public and federally subsidized housing from eviction based on the actions of their abusers and give Public Housing Authorities the ability to transfer a survivor to another housing unit on an emergency basis. Important amendments passed in February 2013 expand on these protections by including nine additional federally subsidized housing programs, explicitly protecting survivors of sexual assault, and mandating that housing agencies create and implement emergency housing transfer options.
While the new law is a major step forward, VAWA’s protections do not apply to private housing and, as a result, many survivors remain unprotected. That’s why the Law Center urges and supports states to take action by advocating for housing rights at the state and local level.
Preventing homelessness for renters
Since the housing crisis began in 2008, property foreclosures have remained a national epidemic. Though most people think of the housing crisis as affecting single-family homeowners, many renters have lost their homes since the bubble burst.
Research indicates that:
• An estimated 20% of all foreclosures are rental properties;
• 40% of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters; and
• 37% of all children affected by foreclosure live in rental housing.
Renters are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of the foreclosure crisis, becoming vulnerable to homelessness through no fault of their own.
In May 2009, after months of advocacy by the Law Center and others, Congress passed the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA), a federal law whose fundamental purpose is to protect renters living in foreclosed properties from abrupt evictions and to give them adequate time to find alternative housing. To achieve this aim, the PTFA provides bona fide tenants with the right to remain in their homes for the duration of their lease agreement or, if a tenant has a short term lease or no lease, for a minimum of 90 days with notice. The Law Center’s advocacy also contributed to the act’s extension through 2014.
Too often, however, this federal law is violated and tenants face unlawful evictions, leaving millions of people vulnerable to housing instability and homelessness. After hearing from hundreds of tenants and advocates in our nationwide survey of PTFA violations, the Law Center jumped into action. We published a report describing violations of the PTFA across the country and provided recommendations for improving the implementation of renters’ rights. We also engaged strategic partners, such as the National Association of Realtors, to promote PTFA awareness and to facilitate voluntary compliance with the law. These efforts, combined with our ongoing work in Congress to strengthen the PTFA, have helped thousands of renters to avoid unfair evictions and stay housed.
Creating homes and communities for homeless people with unused government property
“Many landholding agencies appear to be failing to fairly and accurately report their Title V eligible property, as required under both the statute and Order.” – Opinion, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, March 21, 2013
Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act makes vacant federal properties available at no cost to non-profits for use as facilities to assist homeless people. The Law Center is a recognized expert on this law, and has testified about the program in Congress, publicizes available properties and gives comprehensive support to service providers interested in obtaining them. Properties are used to provide transitional housing, emergency shelter, day centers, meal programs, and more—benefiting more than 2 million homeless persons each year.
The Law Center was instrumental in getting this federal program enacted and has been to court to enforce it multiple times, winning a nationwide injunction. But in 2011, the federal government asked the court to remove the injunction, arguing that it was no longer needed. The Law Center fought back, and in March 2013 we won. Not only was the injunction sustained, but the judge ordered that federal agencies do more to make their vacant properties available, ensuring that the over 2 million people who benefit annually from housing and services provided in once vacant federal properties will continue to be served and that more properties can be used to meet the growing need.
Let’s start with this simple, yet profound statement: Being homeless is not a crime. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Yet all too often in America, society’s least fortunate are deemed criminals and treated as such.
We fight to make sure homeless persons aren’t punished for their misfortune, with two main focuses: ending the criminalization of homelessness and reducing the burden of ID barriers on homeless people.
Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness
Consider, for a moment, a ‘life-sustaining’ act that each of us engages in multiple times a day without really giving it much thought: using the restroom.
For the homeless, however, this simple yet all-important action can be an enormous everyday challenge. Criminalization policies in many cities punish homeless persons who are forced to perform life-sustaining actions in public spaces.
Our research has shown that, of 234 American cities surveyed:
- 40 percent make it a crime to sleep in public spaces
- 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places
- 53 percent prohibit begging and panhandling in public places
When cities use laws or policies such as these that target homeless people for taking actions necessary to their survival, the impact is felt far and wide. While people experiencing homelessness are affected most profoundly, these measures also tax the already overburdened criminal justice system and impact service providers’ ability to do their work. Studies show that criminalization measures cost more than providing permanent supportive housing. Policies that criminalize homelessness take a toll on entire communities.
Criminalization laws violate homeless persons’ constitutional rights, and the Law Center is a national leader on this issue, taking on high-impact litigation to establish positive legal precedents that can be used in courtrooms across the country. After a six-year battle with the City of Dallas, the Law Center secured the right of religious groups to provide food to homeless people living outdoors. The Law Center also challenged St. Petersburg, Florida’s discriminatory enforcement of a “trespassing” ordinance, which was leading to the unconstitutional arrest of many homeless persons for sitting on public sidewalks. In response, the City of St. Petersburg amended the ordinance to include a minimum appeals process, and the Law Center continues to monitor enforcement of the ordinance.
We also work with on-the-ground advocates and government officials to promote measures protecting homeless persons’ civil rights. Since Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to pass a Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights in 2012, the legislation has spread across the country, with recent passage in Connecticut and Illinois, scheduled voting in California, and consideration in Oregon, Vermont and Missouri.
The Law Center has also been instrumental in promoting a human rights approach to criminalization. As a result of our advocacy, the Department of Justice and Interagency Council on Homelessness issued a report in 2012 recognizing that criminalization may violate not only our Constitution, but also our human rights treaty obligations – the first time any domestic agency has recognized a domestic policy as a human rights violation. The Law Center has also worked with numerous international experts to build a growing set of human rights laws on the criminalization of homelessness, and helped numerous local groups use these experts and these standards in fighting local criminalization practices.
I.D. BARRIERS – Reducing the Burden on Homeless People
Lack of identification hinders homeless people’s ability to seek and maintain housing, employment, benefits, and other rights and services. The Law Center is at the cutting edge of advocating for ways to reduce the burden that ID barriers place on homeless people, to make it easier for them to obtain the benefits and services they need that will help them escape homelessness.
One particularly costly way in which lack of ID harms homeless people is in exercise of the constitutional right to vote. Restrictive voter identification laws being passed in many states require a specific type of state-issued photo identification that is difficult—and sometimes impossible—for homeless persons to obtain.
Carl Ellis is a U.S. Army veteran living in a homeless shelter in Milwaukee. His only photo ID is a veteran ID card, which is not accepted under Wisconsin’s new voter ID law. The Law Center is representing Ellis and others in litigation to overturn the law on constitutional grounds.
“If I can serve my country, I should be able to vote for who runs it,” Ellis said. “Veterans and others who do not have a certain type of photo ID should not be kept from voting. These laws are undemocratic and un-American.”
The Law Center is fighting to overturn these laws and protect access to the ballot box. In November 2007, NLCHP filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court challenging Indiana’s Voter Photo ID law as creating unconstitutional obstacles to the right to vote. In its brief, NLCHP noted: “Indiana’s effort…senselessly increases the burdens of homelessness and denies homeless people their full measure of political expression.” While the Court’s final ruling in April 2008 upheld the Indiana law, NLCHP has continued working to remove barriers to voting.
More recently, we partnered with the ACLU, ACLU of Wisconsin, and Dechert LLP on a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s voter ID law. The suit charged that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and will deprive citizens of their fundamental right to vote. In April 2014, the Law Center won this landmark voter ID case to overturn a law that would have disenfranchised 300,000 eligible voters, most of whom are low income and homeless citizens. This win could create a groundbreaking legal precedent to help bring down voter ID laws in other states across America.
The loss of a home is a traumatic experience for anyone but especially for children. Approximately 4.2 million children experience homelessness each year, and a major consequence of homelessness for children is a disruption in their education. Children experiencing homelessness depend heavily on the stability of school to give them a semblance of normalcy in their lives.
Providing continuity of education during an episode of homelessness is vital not only for children’s short-term mental health and emotional well-being but also for their future academic success and economic stability. Kids who change schools twice in a single year are 50% less likely to complete their basic education.
The Law Center is committed to protecting the rights of children experiencing homelessness, including their right to remain in school and receive the support and stability they need to succeed.
“I don’t know what would have happened if it weren’t for having her and the other volunteer lawyers and staff from NLCHP on our side. If I can help just one more parent become aware of the law and the services of the Law Center so that they don’t have to go through what I went through, I’m happy to do whatever I can.” – C.H., father of two
All children have the basic human right to access a quality education that will help them reach their highest potential. To ensure stability for homeless children, the education provisions of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act gives them the right to:
- Remain in the same school they attended before becoming homeless, even if they’re temporarily housed in a different district;
- Receive free transportation to and from school;
- Enroll in a new school without delays due to documentation requirements;
- Receive free school meals and other necessities to help them stay in school; and
- Access a full range of supportive services and extracurricular activities.
But too often, these rights are violated. Many schools and families are unaware of the law’s protections, resulting in many homeless children being denied or delayed access to school. The Law Center is a national leader on this issue. We provide training and technical assistance to schools and advocates to make sure they understand homeless children’s rights and are familiar with best practices in identifying and supporting homeless students. We also provide legal support to families via impact litigation and know-your-rights toolkits.
Through Project LEARN, a cutting-edge pilot program with pro bono partner DLA Piper, the Law Center has trained attorneys in a network of more than 90 attorneys in 30 states to expand our capacity to carry out our critical work. That means more homeless children in more cities will stay in school and receive the education they need to break the cycle of poverty and achieve their dreams.
Beyond access to education, many homeless youths living on their own face additional barriers to the exercise of their basic rights. From runaway, truancy, and curfew statutes to the inability to sign a rental contract or consent to needed health services, unaccompanied homeless youth struggle to survive. The Law Center has published a State Index on Youth Homelessness, which compares all 50 states and DC on their efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness. We also recently published Alone Without a Home, a comprehensive review of the laws affecting homeless youth in each state, which also makes recommendations to advocates for system reforms of statutes. We work with communities across the U.S. to improve their responses to youth homelessness in order to ensure youth are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
“The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is a key partner in addressing the multi-faceted issues facing runaway and homeless youth. Youth homelessness is an enormous issue in the city of Baltimore and yet, there is no dependable research and there are very few resources/services to support this population.” – Megan K. Blondin, Executive Director, MANY, Mid-Atlantic Network of Youth & Family Services