White House, no house — homelessness and the nation’s capital

Where: Washington DC, United States

When: 8 – 15 November 2013

Who: National Coalition for the Homeless; Washington Legal Clinic for the HomelessAmerican Bar Association, Commission on Homelessness and Poverty; National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; United States Interagency Council on Homelessness; National Alliance to End Homelessness 

A federal hub with local problems 

Many of us feel a sense of familiarity with Washington DC from years of seeing the epicentre of US politics on the pages of our newspapers and the screens of our TVs (either via the news or your 14th consecutive episode of The West Wing).

It’s less familiar that in the blocks around Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House, Capitol Hill, the United States Supreme Court, there are about 6800 people experiencing homelessness on a single given day.

In addition to services that assist people experiencing homelessness locally (including Homeless Law’s doppelganger service, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH)), the city is home to some of the world’s best national homelessness policy and advocacy organisations (who focus on the 633,782 people experiencing homelessness on a given night across the country).

I had the privilege of speaking with these experts last week.

Observations and reflections  

The amount of data, evidence and high quality advocacy coming out of these organisations is phenomenal and I’ll save detailed consideration for my final report.  For now, here are 11  observations and reflections from my visit to Washington DC (with the now familiar caveat  — these aren’t  conclusions, just a collection of ideas).

Looking up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill

Looking up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill

The True Reformer Building - home to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

The True Reformer Building – home to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

'Total peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice' (MLK Jr)

‘Total peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice’ (MLK Jr.)

Spread the word: National Coalition for the Homeless bumper sticker

Spread the word: National Coalition for the Homeless bumper sticker


  1. Criminalisation as a local response — I heard a number of clear, compelling statements about laws criminalising homelessness in the US: there has been what was called ‘an epidemic of criminalisation in the US’; usually the laws are ‘municipal codes put in place to push people out of locations that are developing’; and ‘selective enforcement also occurs to get homeless folks out of areas that are gentrifying’.  I also heard that the ‘larger mistake is using the law to address homelessness … it’s the wrong policy instrument’; it’s not always deliberately punitive but often criminalisation is used by local decision-makers ‘confronted with a problem for which they don’t know the real solution … [it’s] used because local officials don’t have better ideas’.
  2. Because you’re homeless, you’re not eligible for housing — in the US, it’s common for people to be denied access to social housing because of a criminal record.  Given the abundant evidence regarding the need for stable housing to minimise the risk of recidivism, this is a harsh and perplexing policy.  It was explained to me as a matter of discretion of social landlords: only around one-quarter of people nationally who need a housing subsidy get it, ‘will they house the single mum or the guy with a criminal record?’  In this environment, the impact of convictions for public space offences is even more acute than in Victoria (where criminal records don’t affect your eligibility for public housing) — they directly prevent people exiting homelessness.
  3. What not to do (worst practice examples) — I heard about a number of harsh enforcement-based approaches to visible homelessness.  Here are a few … In an effort to revitalise the city, Columbia,  South Carolina recently proposed a law that banned homeless people from the local downtown area i.e. effectively made it illegal to be homeless.  As part of this, homeless people would be removed from the designated area by police if they were there without an appointment.  There was going to be a hotline so people could report the presence of homeless people in the prohibited area …  Homelessness advocates were, unsurprisingly, publicly outraged.  In addition to the bad press, the local police chief opposed the plan, identifying that this wasn’t what he wanted to spend limited police resources on, and support for the proposal was eventually withdrawn.  Another example I heard about was Denver’s ban on ‘urban camping’, which targeted people sleeping on the streets in the city centre.  A recent survey of 512 homeless people living in Denver since the ban revealed that: they find it increasingly difficult to access overcrowded shelters; they avoid well-lit and safe downtown areas for hidden locations; and they feel less safe.  In short, the ban has made an already tough life even tougher.  A third example I heard about was Dallas, Texas’s law prohibiting local charities from providing food to people sleeping rough in certain areas.  The NLCHP worked on the legal challenge to this law, which relied on the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a legacy of George W Bush’s period as Governor.  The court found that providing food and support to people experiencing homelessness was part of the organisations’ religious work and therefore protected under the Act.  I heard different views during my conversations — some advocates don’t oppose limitations on serving food in public places, asserting that everyone should be able to eat inside with dignity; another said that banning the provision of food to people experiencing homelessness is ‘a new level of disgusting’ and others said that, while making sure people are able to eat inside is ideal, prohibiting outdoor food service is not the way to achieve this.
  4. Homelessness 101 and working with law enforcement officers — the WLCH runs regular training for new recruits to the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department.  One of their expert lawyers runs the training in partnership with a guy who was formerly homeless and they aim to ‘blow away some of the myths and stereotypes about homeless folks’.  The training builds awareness about homelessness and its causes, as well as resources and services that are available.  The verdict is that it’s been ‘helpful in getting people to understand and respond more appropriately to homelessness’.  I heard from a number of people that police don’t want to spend their time dealing with people experiencing homelessness: ‘they’re not social workers’ and ‘it’s not their role in society to fix homelessness’.   We need to provide alternatives for police: ‘if police don’t know what else to do, they’re going to arrest people’.  A number of experts also explained that police departments and officers ‘can potentially be a huge ally in homelessness policy’.  More about the role of police in the homelessness / public space arena will be discussed in a future post dedicated to this issue (after I’ve had some scheduled conversations with law enforcement officers in coming weeks — stay tuned).
  5. Business Improvement Districts and strange bedfellows — a relatively recent but now established phenomenon across the US are local BIDs or ‘business improvement districts’.  These bodies add another dimension to regulation of public space and homelessness — it can be positive or negative, depending on the predisposition of the particular BID and its members.  In one way, they can be an unconventional ally (and potential source of financial support) for initiatives that support people to move out of public places.  In their most positive form, BIDs have provided funding for outreach workers and drop-in clinics to link rough sleepers with support services.  In a less desirable form, BIDs can be a source of pressure for ‘crackdowns’ on homeless people in public places motivated by commercial concerns.  In terms of building relationships with business people, it was suggested that we keep in mind that, for the most part, business people and advocates are on the same page — ‘we don’t want people drinking or begging in front of your shop either and the community needs to focus on fixing that problem’.  Models that have been successful in the US have had ‘great outreach and collaborative approaches’.  Businesses with concerns call outreach workers rather than the police, but ‘the trick is to have an option for that person to go to … and the reality in most communities in the US is that we don’t have enough beds’.  A good starting point is to get a range of different parties round the table (business, elected officials, police, advocates, consumers), make sure it’s well facilitated and avoid antagonism, start from the point of: ‘we understand where criminalisation comes from, but it won’t get the result you want’.  We need a conversation with a mix of perspectives where stakeholders ‘agree to what the problem is and what some of the solutions are’.
  6. Homeless Courts — there are 25 specialist homeless courts (or specialist lists / dockets) in the US.  The first was started in San Diego in 1989.  When I explained Victoria’s ‘special circumstances’ process to some of my interviewees (the process whereby you can apply to have infringements waived if it can be established that a person’s homelessness, substance dependence or mental illness caused the offending conduct), it was welcomed as a positive feature of Victoria’s legal landscape.  When I explained that these matters take up about 50% of Homeless Law’s capacity and that matters generally take over 12 months to resolve, one person remarked: ‘that sounds very tedious and burdensome’.  At their best, US homeless courts can resolve people’s infringements in 3 – 4 months; they are voluntary (i.e. a person signs up through a service provider); and they do not require a guilty plea and therefore do not appear on a person’s criminal record (in stark and important contrast to Victoria’s system).  The courts can get through 200 cases (many people have multiple cases) in an afternoon, which avoids courts calling multiple matters where respondents don’t attend; judges appreciate that ‘this is a waste of time’.   Guiding principles of the courts are: no-one goes to jail; no fines, ‘people can’t pay them’; and there’s always the option to be transferred to the general court if needed.  It’s estimated that 80 – 90% of all matters are dismissed.
  7. Let’s not forget this is a human rights issue — we need to balance pragmatic arguments based on the inefficiency of criminalisation with the position that the criminalisation of homelessness is also a potential contravention of human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The 2012 report of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness recognised this, which is the first time a federal report has done so and, accordingly, a significant breakthrough for homelessness advocates.  This public governmental statement has been useful both in terms of raising awareness and as a tool for advocates.  NLCHP has recently done a significant amount of advocacy using international human rights mechanisms with the aim of getting recognition from the UN Human Rights Committee that the criminalisation of homelessness contravenes international treaty obligations.  This work is part of their ongoing work ‘to integrate international human rights standards into the domestic policy discourse on issues of homelessness’.
  8. A word of warning about personal stories — individual stories ‘can backfire’.  They can encourage community members and decision-makers to think: ‘is this a good person?  I’m happy for them to be helped if they’re a good person’ and can feed problematic notions about the deserving and undeserving poor.  I was also reminded that personal stories risk giving oxygen to the suggestion that individuals cause homelessness, and distracting from the fact that the main causes of homelessness — poverty and an acute shortage of affordable housing — are structural and have little to do with individuals.  Homelessness is ‘a macroeconomic problem’.  There are solutions to it: ‘it costs us money to let it happen.  We can do better and smarter’.
  9. Successful outreach — a key message throughout my conversations is that there’s no point linking people with waiting lists or services that don’t exist, ‘outreach workers are only as good as the services they have to refer people to’.    There are also concerns about the effectiveness of ‘mandatory referrals’: ‘don’t force people into it, it won’t work … be smart about it, make it nice, offer services people want and need … build trust’.  One example that was mentioned was the Maryhaven Engagement Center in Columbus, Ohio.  When people experiencing homelessness are found drunk in public by outreach workers or safety officers, they are taken to a specialist centre where they can sleep and have a shower.  The centre shelters 42 men and 8 women per night. There is 24 hour medical care, and the center is open 365 days a year. When they sober up, they’re offered access to services.  This isn’t compulsory and it’s not an ultimatum.  The centre is a medical facility, not a justice one.  It’s not an inexpensive service to provide but it’s ‘highly valued by police, businesses and health services’.  People I spoke with also said that thought needs to go into who’s making the offer of services: ‘how welcome is it for a police officer to offer services as an alternative to arrest?’ While there are some officers with homelessness expertise, links with services are unlikely to be successful ‘if they’re coming from the arresting officer’.
  10. Access to private places, but housing alone isn’t the solution — there is a strong sense amongst DC advocates that the ultimate solution to criminalisation of homelessness is access to permanent supported housing: ‘we need to have a community where the reliance on public space to live private lives is minimised by having access to affordable housing … public space issues arise because people don’t have private space to do the things that we should all be able to do in private’.  Importantly, advocates remind us that housing alone is not enough, ‘it’s misleading to say housing is the solution’.  For people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness, four walls and a roof will not be a solution — built in support programs are critical.
  11. The risks of advocating to reduce criminalisation of homelessness — ‘to some extent you have to be careful how much you’re making it easier for people to be homeless and how much you’re working on solutions that aim to end homelessness’.  Indeed.
    The rise of hip food trucks makes it hard to prohibit homelessness services providing food -- or so you'd think

    The rise of hip food trucks makes it hard to prohibit homelessness services providing food — or so you’d think

    DC's local BID - Business Improvement District

    DC’s local BID – Business Improvement District



  1. Another fantastic piece Lucy!

  2. Very insightful Lucy, thank you for sharing your thoughts as you go! The Homeless Courts sound like a very successful idea, but are they perhaps a bit of a bandaid? If 80-90% of matters are dismissed it seems that there is an enormous volume of matters that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place? (qualification: this comment comes from a non lawyer who does not work in the field!)

  3. Love it Lucy – so much interesting information packed into your blog.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

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