Progressives in Congress try to protect homeless, prevent more homelessness

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A bill introduced in Congress is looking to address several barriers to housing, and prevent more people from becoming homeless.

The Housing is a Human Right Act of 2020, introduced by Washington State Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, would pump billions of dollars into addressing homelessness by tying funding to how well agencies address the issue.

Jayapal and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said the bill is part of a housing framework, or set of bills, known as the People’s Housing Platform, intended to make federal housing policy reform a top priority.

The bill would provide over $300 billion for housing infrastructure and homeless reduction over a decade.

“By investing massive amounts of federal dollars to help states and local organizations on the frontlines, we can provide housing and supportive services for vulnerable communities and ensure every [person] in America has a bed to sleep in and a roof over their head,” Jayapal said.

Eric Tars, Legal Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said Jayapal’s office worked with them to come up with the language regarding the decriminalization of homelessness to include in the bill.

With the current COVID-19 crisis, Tars said many communities have followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to halt homeless sweeps and to place those experiencing homelessness into single units, like hotels and motels, rather than shelters, which may be congested and not provide people with privacy. 

Measures in the bill require agencies to adopt similar housing first policies. 

“This is the first bill trying to provide new funding to address homelessness, to ensure that communities that are accepting that funding be able to show that they are reducing the criminalization of homelessness in their communities,” Tars said. 

Language in the bill directs the Comptroller General to gather information from agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on how they have implemented measures that would make it easier for people to obtain housing.

Without proper identification or documents, many homeless people aren’t able to access housing, unemployment benefits or health care. Holding onto those documents or getting copies of them, Tars said, presents a barrier.

“We know that, for example, people experiencing homelessness often lose their identification documents as a result of being criminalized. … [this] requires the federal government to affirmatively look at this issue of homelessness and make a report for Congress to look at how to remove barriers from those things,” Tars said.

Kelly Turley, Associate Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said provisions in the bill, including improved access to identification cards, are already being discussed at the Massachusetts State House. 

“There’s some similarities at the state level, but a lot of bills are on hold because of the pandemic,” Turley said.

Postponement of other bills notwithstanding, Turley is not advising the legislature to wait on this bill or others in the People’s Housing Platform. She and other organizations like hers are anticipating a rise in the number of homeless people during and after this pandemic.

Since March 16, days before the governor issued a stay at home advisory, 480 eviction cases have been filed, according to Turley.

She said, “thousands are at risk of homelessness because of the economic and health impacts of COVID-19.”

Locally, work to prevent landlords and banks from foreclosing on homes and evicting tenants once government reopens is underway.

With cases already pending, Turley said the fear is that there will be a rush to evict once the housing courts are reopened.

Tars too worries for those who may become homeless as a result of this epidemic, but sees this moment as an opportunity where we realize how closely housing is tied to public health.

“If we aren’t getting people into housing now it means they will be in the hospital room beds, which is bad for the housed members of the community as well,” Tars said. “It’s not just their public health at risk…it’s all of ours.”



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