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 We hope you will join us!

Find this post on Funders Together blog, published September 28, 2016.


In this podcast, Bill Gilmartin, Senior Policy Advisor at the National Association of Realtors, and Tristia Bauman, Housing Attorney at the Law Center, discuss the important applications of the federal Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act to real estate professionals and their work.

Twenty-five years ago-on July 22, 1987-Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This landmark legislation provides federal funding for shelters and other services for people who are homeless. It also offered educational protections for children whose families do not have a home address.

The Law Center marked the occasion on July 19 with an event celebrating the Act’s successes, while laying out a vision for finally ending homelessness in America.  The National Association of Realtors, with which the Law Center is working to ensure renters of foreclosed properties known their rights under the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, hosted the event at its office overlooking the Capitol.


The Law Center is proud to announce a new home for its blog:

If you’re currently subscribing to the blog by e-mail, you’ll need to subscribe to the new site to continue receiving updates.

And for those following the blog through an RSS feed, you’ll need to add the new site to your RSS reader.

We hope you’ll join us at our blog’s new and improved home, as we continue the fight to end and prevent homelessness in America.

In my work on housing rights for domestic violence survivors, I’m regularly aware of the impossibility of addressing the issue of homelessness in a vacuum.  While those of us engaged in legal and policy work at the Law Center tend to focus on specific subject areas, the boundaries of our fields of expertise, as is generally the case in poverty law, are increasingly porous.  For low-income women who have experienced domestic violence, homelessness is often the end of a long road paved with barriers to stability and self-sufficiency.  Only when these obstacles disappear will a path to safe and secure housing emerge for them.

One particularly shameful impediment to economic security for DV survivors has recently come to light during the national debate on health care reform.  As it turns out, DC has the dubious distinction of remaining among the handful of states that permit insurance companies to regard a history of domestic violence as a pre-existing condition for purposes of denying coverage .  As outrageous as this fact might seem in isolation, it is particularly disturbing when viewed in tandem with such additional barriers to stability as housing and employment discrimination.

Women who disclose their status as survivors already face a range of repercussions: loss of income, hostility from landlords wary of noise and property damage, and inaccessibility of safe and affordable housing.  Until federal health care reform is fully implemented in 2014, they may have one more reason to fear the consequences of seeking the help they need.  Fortunately, members of the DC Council have recently sought to remedy this injustice by proposing legislation to ban local insurers from denying coverage due to domestic violence history.  The Law Center enthusiastically supports this step towards greater economic security for survivors.

-Rachel Natelson, Domestic Violence Attorney

Wins and losses? It’s about way more than that.

We’ve just had two big wins for homeless children.

We won a great settlement in our lawsuit against a suburban Pittsburgh school district and the state of Pennsylvania, working in partnership with Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania group. The school district had tried to remove the children from school, claiming that they did not live in the district because they slept overnight in a different school district than the one they received services from during the day. Under our settlement, the state issued new guidelines making clear that homeless children with any substantial connection to a school district are legally entitled to immediate enrollment.

In a second Pennsylvania victory, again working with the Education Law Center, we won a preliminary injunction from a federal district court ordering a suburban school outside of Harrisburg to re-enroll a homeless youth.

But we also had a big disappointment in a federal court suit we filed in St. Petersburg, Florida, together with Southern Legal Counsel, challenging that city’s efforts to criminalize its homeless residents. We voluntarily dismissed two claims in our case following a prior unfavorable ruling by the judge. While we’re still considering an appeal on the claims previously dismissed, we’re obviously disappointed.

Still, it’s not just about the legal battles. (more…)