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Washington, D.C. has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country: 5 times higher than the national average, according to a June 2014 report by the Transitional Housing Corporation and DC Community of Hope.

Robert Warren, Executive Director of the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC), was recently invited to speak with law students at Georgetown University to discuss the D.C. Human Right to Housing Initiative and his own experience with housing and homelessness.

PFFC is a city-wide effort to end homelessness for individuals in D.C. through advocacy, outreach and mentorship.

“[Homelessness is] perhaps the most visible and most severe symptom of the lack of respect for the right to adequate housing,” according to The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, an unpaid independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). According to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights—adopted by member states such as the U.S. in 1948—“adequate housing” is a universal human right.

Yet there is no current national right to any sort of housing or shelter in the United States. The District is one of the few cities in the country with a legal right-to-shelter, when temperatures reach below freezing temperatures at least.

“I was so shocked when someone told me that housing was not a human right, but a commodity,” Warren told Street Sense. “Yes, it’s a commodity, but it needs to be available to everyone.”

Robert Warren

The new D.C. Human Right to Housing Initiative has been gaining momentum since fall of 2014. The project emerged as a collaboration between the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, D.C. Access to Justice Commission, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, and a number of local legal service providers.

The campaign plans a multi-pronged strategy including policy, media and community outreach. The groups are working to develop and implement priorities for legal advocacy. By providing low barrier, comprehensive legal services in D.C., clients may gain access to housing, shelter and life-saving services. A Right to Housing Resolution draft has been introduced to the D.C. City Council with a goal of implementation within the next few years.

The Initiative plans to make legal arguments with the “human rights framework,” which consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and six other core human rights treaties the U.S. has signed. These agreements recognize housing as a right, but do not bind the U.S. to act on it. The advocates hope for success on par with the District’s Right to Overnight Shelter Act, which passed with a 72 percent vote in 1984.

In February, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed an assessment with the U.N. on the United States’ ability to follow recommendations it accepted from the HRC in 2010. Recommendations related to housing and homelessness.

“Homelessness has not been reduced…homeless persons remain vulnerable to threats…housing affordability remains at crisis levels…and discrimination remains persistent in the housing market,” the report stated.

Patty Fugere, Executive Director of the Washington Legal Clinic, and her colleague Amber Harding conduct the Georgetown University Law Center class Robert Warren visited: “Homelessness, Poverty and Legal Advocacy.” The class requires students to submit a portfolio proposing how to tackle a housing issue of their choice, containing materials such as a strategic plan, media advisory, letters to stakeholders, and publicity outreach materials.

Clara Ong

The course aims for students to get hands-on experience in housing advocacy. Fugere and Harding believe this will “humanize homelessness” for their students. Warren’s recount of dealing with the recent winter blast did that well enough.

“I met a homeless man on one of the coldest nights,” Warren said. “His blankets were frozen to him and to the ground. I had to peel the blanket off just to get him indoors.”