credit: Henrieese Roberts

Across the country, people experiencing homelessness are subject to arrest for sitting, sleeping and eating outside, despite the lack of other options. An arrest could mean that individuals experiencing homelessness are taken to jail, where they remain until they can pay fines, and are subject to loss of property or employment.

The criminalization of homelessness is on the rise, as documented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in its “Housing Not Handcuffs” report. The issue, plus the fight for adequate affordable housing, brought together more than 150 legal professionals and advocates at “Housing Not Handcuffs: The National Forum on the Human Right to Housing” June 6-7 in Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by Sidley Austin LLP.

The NLCHP, based in D.C., has hosted the forum since 2003. Over the past few years, the event’s focus has been the criminalization of homelessness.

“It’s very important to bring people together working at different levels of government in different parts of the country on similar issues,” said NLCHP Executive Director Maria Foscarinis. “If we come together, we can learn from each other. We can also become a more powerful force for change and that’s the idea.”

The two-day forum included educational sessions that touched on preventing homelessness by strengthening housing protections, modeling policies to address the criminalization of homelessness and analyzing the current coverage of homelessness and poverty by the media.

Keynote speakers included Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Peter Edelman, professor of law at Georgetown Law Center and author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

Many speakers touched on how President Donald Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson have threatened the gains that have already been made in homelessness and housing policies. While many advocates agreed Trump’s proposed budget, which calls for a 14 percent decrease in HUD funding, is “dead on arrival” on The Hill, they find the neglect of current affordable housing needs troubling.

“I think the Trump administration is a huge threat right now. If those cuts are accepted, or even a watered down version of them is accepted, then homelessness is going to increase dramatically,” Foscarinis said.

In her opening remarks, Foscarinis said NLCHP is “increasingly looking at the state and local levels” to implement its Housing Not Handcuffs campaign, which calls for stopping the criminalization of homelessness, eliminating unjust evictions and increasing access to

affordable housing. One panel at the forum celebrated successes in cities across the country that embody Housing Not Handcuffs principles.

Don Sawyer, a filmmaker with A Bigger Vision, shared how the Indianapolis City Council passed a landmark “Homeless Bill of Rights” following his 2016 documentary, “Under The Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness.” The film, available on Amazon Prime, gives an unfiltered glimpse into homeless life in Indiana’s capital as a tent city is being torn apart.

“What motivates us is that the general public has no idea,” Sawyer said. “The two most common comments we get when people see our film is that ‘I had no idea,’ and two, ‘What can I do to help?’ If we can be a tool that everybody here can use to educate their communities and make everybody’s life a lot easier, then that motivates us.”

The NLCHP provided legal and legislative advice to Sawyer as the city council responded to the film’s portrayal of the criminalization of homelessness. The mayor of Indianapolis ultimately vetoed the “bill of rights,” which would have outlawed discrimination against homeless people when they attempt to access city services.

Sawyer said the forum is a great reminder that advocates and professionals are not siloed in their work at ending homelessness.

“Sometimes you feel hopeless, you feel like it’s never ending,” he said. “But when you get to a place like this and you see that everyone is working on this, it’s almost like a community itself. It’s great to come here and be able to get progress reports.”

Forum attendees also included people who are currently experiencing homelessness, or have experienced it in the past.

“It’s very important to us that people who’ve experienced homelessness are at the table and play a key role,” Foscarinis said. “That actually is a human rights principle — people who are directly affected have to play a key in advocacy and devising solutions.”

Bonnie Lane is formerly homeless and now advocates in Baltimore for people living on the streets. She said she’s leaving the conference “a little more fired up.”

“It is my passion. (Advocacy) is very necessary; without housing it’s hard to do anything else. I don’t see the government doing it, and I don’t think our government is ever going to solve it,” Lane said.

Earlier this year, the NLCHP reported that the majority of lawsuits filed to challenge the criminalization of homelessness had been successful in court. The Housing Not Handcuffs report and its companion piece, a litigation manual, are available at www.nlchp.org.