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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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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…)

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…)

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!