The following is a guest post from Paul Boden, executive director at Western Regional Advocacy Project in San Francisco:

People are nervous these days. Unemployment is at the highest level since the depression, foreclosure rates continue to rise despite massive bailouts to banks and lenders, and almost everyday another factory is closing or laying off workers.

The current proliferation of “nuisance crime laws” in public spaces is a manifestation of people’s fears about the increasing visibility of poverty. Unfortunately, adding to the litany of laws that criminalize poverty and homelessness isn’t going to change a thing.

Every night on the news are stories of people and families who never thought they would eat at a soup kitchen, get food from a pantry, or sleep in a shelter alongside the “regular homeless.” And yet, amazingly enough, across the country new laws are being proposed to protect the rest of “us” who still have a job, a business or a home from having to see this misery. (more…)

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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 of the first cases I brought as the newly-minted Children & Youth Staff Attorney back in 2008 involved a child staying at a day shelter in Carlynton, a suburb of Pittsburgh, who was prevented from enrolling in the school district. The school superintendent didn’t want this shelter to be open in his neighborhood, so he penalized her educational progress, arguing that because she sometimes slept outside the district, she was not eligible to attend his district’s schools. Despite clear law to the contrary, the district wouldn’t negotiate.

We brought the case to the state dispute resolution process and got the child provisionally enrolled. But before the state could make a final ruling, the family found permanent housing, and we had to drop the case. We warned the state that a similar situation was bound to arise, and they should issue guidance making clear that schools were obligated to accept these students, but they declined, and I was left both personally and professionally with a loose end.

Sure enough, last fall another family came to the shelter, and their four children were prevented from enrolling. We again turned to the state process, but the state, incredibly, ruled that not only were the children not entitled to attend in Carlynton, they couldn’t tell us which district the children were eligible to attend! We filed a federal lawsuit with our partners at the Education Law Center, getting the children immediately enrolled. Soon after, realizing the law was on our side, the State began negotiations with us.

Today, we settled the case. The district admitted they were wrong, and the state created new official guidance to make clear that homeless students can’t control their overnight accommodations, and must be allowed to any school where they have a substantial connection to the area.  I’m very happy for the students of Pennsylvania, and the Law Center will be promoting this guidance nationally as model language for other states to adopt.  But since this was one of my first cases – and interrupted at that – I’m today celebrating that I’ve closed this loose end, and justice has finally been served.

-Eric Tars, Children & Youth Attorney

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!

In an earlier post, Eric shared his rising hope that the idea that housing is a human right may be gaining some traction among key government officials. Today, I’m feeling it too.

I just got back from hearing a keynote address by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at the Housing Justice network conference. It felt like a breath of fresh air—and that’s not just because it’s a beautiful spring-like day in DC. It’s because this Secretary believes and says that housing is a human right! Barbara Sard, formerly of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and currently special advisor for rental housing at HUD, introduced the Secretary and told this anecdote: A group of activists came to meet with the Secretary and asked him whether he believed that housing is a human right. To their surprise, he said, simply and unequivocally, “Yes.”

Obviously,  saying the words is not enough. But it was refreshing to hear and the right place to start. And I’m giving us some credit for this since the Law Center raised this specifically with him when we met one-on-one. He was interested in thinking about housing through a human rights framework and asked for more information, which we happily sent. Shaun Donovan was my intern many (too many!) years ago, and I know he’s committed to and knowledgeable about homelessness and low-income housing. He’ll need to back up his words with action, and we’ll be holding him accountable.

Still, the words were nice to hear.

-Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director

This morning the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, presented her report on the U.S. to the UN Human Rights Council.  Douglas M. Griffiths, Deputy Permanent Representative of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations made our government’s formal response, continuing a legalistic avoidance of our human rights commitments, rather than fulfilling Obama’s pledge to “lead by example.”  Rep. Griffiths stated, “While the U.S. has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, we have made a political commitment to a human right related to housing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Although US law does not treat adequate housing as a legally enforceable right, our law does provide certain legally enforceable rights and protections related to housing such as anti-discrimination requirements and provision of adequate housing to persons in government custody.”

How long can the government continue to hold this awkward position?  The “human right related to housing in the UDHR” is the right to adequate housing – why not call it such? And if we have made a “political commitment” to that right, but “U.S. law does not treat adequate housing as a legally enforceable right,” then how are we possibly fulfilling our commitment?  And if the government is going to cite its provision of a right to “adequate housing to persons in government custody,” I think there’s a lot of people doubled and tripled up in jail cells and immigrant detention centers across the country who would dispute that is being provided.

If, as Mr. Griffiths concluded, “we look forward to engaging with the Special Rapporteur on questions like this as we continue to explore how to improve housing in the US and contribute to a global conversation to address significant problems such as homelessness,” a good place to start would be to make a clean break with the past and simply declare our unqualified, unparsed, unavoidable commitment to the human right to housing.

-Eric Tars,  Human Rights Program Director

Friday marked another small step for activists in the long term movement to have a real dialogue about the human right to housing in the U.S.  Despite blizzard conditions, over 80 people came and participated at the New York City UPR listening session (see previous post for discussion of process), with high-ranking government representatives.

One of the most compelling moments of the day was when Arthur Wood offered his testimony of his forced eviction from his home and studio in New York, the Broken Angel, with the ashes of his recently deceased wife being held by his son next to him.  She had passed away in large part due to the stress of their eviction. It brought into sharp focus how the right to housing for many is literally a matter of life and death. Many others offered similarly personal and touching testimonies.

And, as I said in my testimony, although President Obama has said “it is unacceptable for families and children to be homeless in a country as wealthy as ours,” the testimonies and the statistics make it clear we do accept this every day.  And members from the State Department delegation continued to express the Bush-era mantra that the U.S. is already in complete compliance with all its U.N. treaty obligations, and economic and social rights were covered only as a courtesy.

Clearly there is more work to be done, and there’s plenty more I could critique about the process for developing the consultation.  But Jennifer Jones, Advisor to the Assistant Secretary in the Office of Public and Indian Housing at HUD, said that the Obama Administration acknowledges it is not doing everything it could to ensure the right to housing, and also that HUD Secretary Donovan believes housing is a human right and shares that mission with all in the agency.  That frank acknowledgment, and that spirit of engagement within human rights frame are an important base upon which to build a new conversation around housing rights. So I’ll try to leave with that note of optimism, and at a minimum consider us one small step closer to the right to housing.

-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director