Organizing Federal Action to Combat Criminalization of Homelessness

On July 17, I participated in an open dialogue about the criminalization of homelessness in the United States among representatives from key federal agencies and advocates from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP).

Prompted by the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Committee’s concern about imposing criminal penalties on people living on the streets in the U.S., the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) hosted delegates from the Departments of State, Justice, Housing & Urban Development, Health & Human Services, and Veterans Affairs, as well as NLCHP to discuss the urgent need for effective solutions. While the focus of the meeting was about domestic policy, the fact that it took place within this context of a human rights review was unprecedented, and the participants arrived ready to address criminalization of homelessness as a potential violation of both the U.S. constitution and our international treaty obligations.

Although participants recognized that criminalization laws and ordinances are implemented on state and local levels, the conversation demonstrated a collective interest in federal agencies using their power to incentivize constructive alternatives to criminalization.

With this in mind, participants shared their respective agencies’ efforts to reduce criminalization. The Department of Justice (DOJ) discussed its creation of consent decrees that have expanded supportive and permanent housing in the context of the Olmstead Supreme Court case. Although Olmstead focused on preventing unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities, many people experiencing homeless are also living with disabilities, and these settlements help create housing options for them outside an institutional context. All participants expressed interest in exploring and expanding the line of cases addressing benefits for people experiencing homelessness.

NLCHP’s Maria Foscarinis highlighted the growing trend of states passing Homeless Bills of Rights to ensure that communities do not violate homeless individuals’ rights. Participants also noted the importance of the federal government systemically supporting these protections and working with human rights commissions on a local level to educate individuals on their civil and human rights.

Concrete commitments by federal agencies to engage with state and local governments to end criminalization of homelessness were critically absent from the discussion. However, the USICH tasked all representatives to review and respond to the day’s discussion and NLCHP’s policy recommendations at the next USICH inter-agency meeting in September.

NLCHP will submit its official shadow report to the Human Rights Committee later this summer, and will be able to share any actions the agencies take in its presentation to the Committee during the review in October.

The meeting concluded with Barbara Poppe, Executive Director of the USICH, sharing a story recently referred to her about a homeless man in Los Angeles’ Skid Row spending 60 days in jail after being unable to pay jaywalking ticket, a stark demonstration of the violation of human rights that criminalization presents, and strong motivation for all the agencies to do what they can to stop this stain on America’s reputation as a human rights leader.

Original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

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