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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 jbrewer@nlchp.org. We hope you will join us!

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

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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.


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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.

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The Law Center is proud to announce a new home for its blog: www.homelessnesslaw.org.

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.

As policy director here at the Law Center, my work tends toward the macro level: big-picture homelessness programs and funding. Since the economic crisis gripped the nation, Congress and the Administration have paid increased attention to the people who find themselves battling to obtain and/or maintain a place they can call home.

As an individual living and working in the D.C. area, however, I see homelessness on the micro-level. When my wife and I drive to work every morning we pass a panhandler who weaves between the cars, shaking a cup as he approaches each vehicle at the stoplight.  As we get closer to the parking garage we pass other people carrying all their belongings around the city.  I sometimes see city-issued blankets stashed by homeless people inside the newspaper machines on the corner. Near the Law Center, there is a gentleman who usually sits with his shopping cart on the corner.  Each day, his refrain is the same:  “Help Out!  Help Out!  Help Out!”

Help out.  I like to think that that is what I am doing every day at the Law Center as we advocate for the human right to housing, increased funding for targeted homeless programs, and more. It would be easy to tune this voice out, and even easier to turn away from the men and women who approach me on K Street at lunchtime. I see so many people look past them.  I worry about growing numb to the plight of the actual people who face the dangers of homelessness every day.

The man on the corner has not been around lately. I wonder about him. I would like to think he found shelter and a place for his things. I pray that he found the supportive services needed by so many homeless individuals. I know that might not be the case. But in the face of all this uncertainty, his refrain stays in my ears:  Help out.  I pass his charge to anyone who reads this.  Help out!  Help out!  Help out!   It is something we can all do, and sometimes it is all we can do…

-Jason Small, Policy Director

One day, about four years ago, I found myself at a housewarming party for a man named Bill, who I barely knew. Bill’s apartment was sparsely furnished, and the only things in his fridge were Pepsi, milk, and some Hershey’s syrup. He didn’t have enough seating for his guests, but he could offer shelter from the season’s first freeze – and his guests had brought pizza!

Just a few days before, Bill had been sleeping in a railroad tunnel, as he had for the last five years.

Bill’s struggles with mental illness lead him to homelessness when both of his caretakers passed away. With no stable source of income and no support network, he was, quite literally, left out in the cold.

For five years, the staff at the homeless day shelter where I was volunteering had been working with Bill to build his trust and find him a home. His open house may be the best party I’ve ever been to.

Bill is one of the reasons I became an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, and one of the reasons I firmly believe in the work of the Law Center. Because I am committed to seeing a day when stories like Bill’s won’t exist, I know we have to make some big changes in America. And at the Law Center, we’re daily working to change the laws in this country to bring us closer and closer to ending homelessness.

One such change is the Federal Plan to End Homelessness, due to Congress in May of this year. Right now, the government wants to know what you think we ought to do to end homelessness in America. I’m adding my two cents because I cannot imagine how hard the ground must feel each night in a railroad tunnel. No matter your reason, I hope you’ll add your ideas too.

-Whitney Gent, Development & Communications Manager

*Don’t wait! The forum closes on Monday!

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