Legal Center for the Homeless: US Gets D+ on Homeless Policy

A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that, while the federal government made some progress in securing the right to housing in 2015, government policy remains dangerously inadequate. The group’s annual Human Right to Housing Report card gave overall federal policy a big red D+.

The analysis takes into account the federal government’s approach to various issues surrounding that right last year, including whether:

  • New laws or policies were passed to protect the human right to housing.
  • Existing laws to protect that right were actually implemented and enforced.
  • Any new laws, or the enforcement of existing laws, undermined the right to housing.
  • Resources to protect these rights increased or decreased over the past year.

“The United States is passing, but barely,” the report observed, adding there were “both exciting developments and disappointments regarding the human right to housing” last year.

Among those highlights? A few key U.S. Supreme Court cases expanded rights for the homeless, including a ruling that made it harder for local governments to pass laws against panhandling and the striking down of an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development also strengthened requirements for local governments to secure affordable housing and promote inclusive communities, along with additional incentives offered to local governments to decriminalize homelessness.

Only two of the subcategories, including efforts to decriminalize homelessness, saw their grades go up on the report card this year. Others dropped or stayed notably low, including a grade for affordability (from a D in 2014 to an F in 2015), domestic violence (a B to a C) and renters (F to an F).

As those low grades underscore, the reports concludes that much work remains to be done. Too many local governments continue to enforce laws that simply harass the homeless, exacerbating the plight of the vulnerable population while wasting money that could be better spent on proactive efforts that succeed.

“I think local advocates should do a freedom-of-information request to your local police department to see how many people are being ticketed and brought in on warrants, what the average pretrial length of stay in jail is for those charged with these violations, and what the average cost of a night in jail is,” Eric Tars, senior attorney at the center, told Spare Change News. “Add those all up and bring out the hidden costs of criminalization in your community.”

“Give citizens the information to call out their elected officials: ‘You’ve been spending all this money to harass and incarcerate homeless people, but you’re no closer to ending homelessness.’”

A few of the recommendations include:

  • Increasing funding for homeless prevention programs, as well as expanding the federal definition of “homeless.”
  • Strengthening title 5 of the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires vacant or underutilized federal properties be made available to homeless service providers.
  • A law ensuring no one loses access to water or sanitation services because of an inability to pay.
  • Increasing the minimum wage and social security benefits to help ensure no one is paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

You can read the full report, or its summary, at http://www.nlchp.org/documents/2015_HousingReport.

(This article was updated March 8 to correct the spelling of Eric Tars’ name.)

 

Chris Caesar is a freelance writer based in Malden. His work has appeared in Boston.com, Metro, Death & Taxes, Muckrock, The Portsmouth Herald and more. Say "hi" on Twitter: @ChrisCaesar.

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