Solving Homelessness: Legal Assistance and Reform

Legal problems can, and often do, force people into extreme poverty, homelessness included. A court case can take over a person’s life, draining time, resources and funds. Depending on the reasons behind the case, it can cost a person their reputation, job and family – justifiably or not. Any involvement with the legal system is costly and winning is often the result of simply having more resources to devote to the process. If the issue at stake is important enough, people will (and have) devote every last resource to the fight, leaving them financially destitute.

Surviving extreme poverty (homeless or housed) is a legal quagmire of vagrancy laws; restrictions based on lack of a permanent address; illegal evictions; and accusations of theft, fraud, trespassing and simply existing (e.g.: sleeping in public). Attempting to report violent attacks or rapes is practically impossible and police brutality is not uncommon.

Those are just the most commonly known legal issues facing people trying to escape extreme poverty.

Any form of legal entanglement is devastating to impoverished families. Criminal cases are common and many of them are based on racial profiling or ridiculous laws specifically designed (and selectively enforced) to criminalize the existence of poor people because those with power don’t like seeing extreme poverty in public spaces.

I wish I could say that last sentence was an exaggeration or an analogy or even representation of worst-case-scenarios that pop-up through the country. Sadly, it is the cold-hard-reality faced by people surviving extreme poverty everywhere in the United States.

There are free legal aid programs, but they are inundated with requests for help, run by a small staff of volunteers and universally refuse to even discuss anything that is considered criminal. Legal representation provided within the court system is also overloaded and poorly managed.

As the experts in mass incarceration have pointed out, simply being part of a targeted racial group almost guarantees problems with the criminal justice system, regardless of your commitment to living a good and honest life. The same can be said for people surviving poverty – particularly those faced with extreme poverty and homelessness.

Extreme poverty and homelessness will not be significantly reduced, much less solved, until prejudiced and predatory laws are eliminated, all people are provided access to quality legal assistance and addressing an issue through the court system does not require being either extremely wealthy or a willingness to face complete financial devastation.

There’s a lot of work to be done here.
I don’t have a clean or easy answer.
It must change.
Period.

Mass Incarceration and Vagrancy Law Resources:

Blame My Timid Soul

“A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it on, were evil. But possibly they had to be violent, because easy-going citizens like me couldn’t be stirred up otherwise. If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn’t have been any need of agitators and war and blood.

“It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!

“Is it too late?”

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

  • Biography from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

Radical Attorney

Quote

Amazon.com

Ahead of the crowd a lady with twists stands on top of a police car, holding a bullhorn. She turns toward us, her fist raised for black power. Khalil smiles on the front of her T-shirt.

“Ain’t that your attorney, Starr?” Seven asks.

“Yeah.”

Now I knew Ms. Ofrah was about that radical life, but when you think “attorney” you don’t really think “person standing on a police car with a bullhorn,” you know?

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

First They Came for the Poor

…one day in early 2000, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to EBT cards, Dorothy Allen said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me. Then she added, “You should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next.”

Dorothy’s insight was prescient. The kind of invasive electronic scrutiny she described has become commonplace across the class spectrum today.

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks

Poor People’s Campaign: Lincoln Nebraska

The Poor People’s Campaign launches today with coordinated local protests in state capitals all over the USA.

Nebraska is one of the states that does not have a campaign organised, so I took a photo of the capital and modified it a bit:

Now there’s a protest in Lincoln, NE!

It doesn’t have the same powerful (and important) effect as a real life protest, but it’s the beginning of something…hopefully…even if that something is just an idea.

Homeless Communities

All of the following groups are working to establish communities for people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness):

Rootz of Change: (Atlanta, GA, USA) An intentional community, farm, training center and a community of anti-poverty activists.

Dignity Village: (Portland, OR, USA) A tiny house community offering temporary living to people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness). Also maintains a collection of micro-businesses. Quote from website: We feel it’s necessary to establish a community-based living facility where people living on the streets can have their basic needs met in a stable, sanitary environment free from violence, theft, disruption of peace, and drugs and alcohol.

Right to Dream Too (R2Dtoo): (Portland, OR, USA) Safe camping location/community offering a safe location to sleep. Video tours and interviews of the community are listed on the website. I recommend watching this one: Right To Dream Too (R2D2) City Hall Meetings Portland OR 2013 Quote from website: Right2DreamToo (R2DToo) was established on World Homeless Action Day, Oct. 10th, 2011. We are a nonprofit organization operating a space that provides refuge and a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter. We exist to awaken social and politcal groups to the importance of safe undisturbed sleep. Our purpose is to create a placewhere unhoused people can rest or sleep without being rousted by police or private security and without being under the threat of violence.

Opportunity Village: (Eugene, OR) Micro-housing community providing transitional housing and community support for homeless. Managed by Square One Villages, a non profit  dedicated to creating self-managed communities of cost-effective tiny homes for people in need of housing.

Build Our House Project: (Philadelphia, PA) Quote from website: Sustainable, supportive housing, organised by poor and homeless people, for poor and homeless people. Working to end homelessness in Philadelphia through justice and compassion.

Community First!: (Austin, TX, USA) Quote from web page: A 27-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas. A development of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, this transformative residential program exists to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets, while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. Additional information, upcoming events and videos can be found on the Community First Village Facebook page.

Homeless Ecoville: (Richmond, VA, USA) A self-sustaining, tiny home community created by and for extremely poor (homeless) people. Quote from website: It is a community of people who work together toward being a self-sustaining village. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to raise funds for the land.

Tiny Cabins 5 Safe Harbor: (Seattle, WA, USA) Quote from Facebook page: A safe harbor from the mean streets of Seattle, a community of tiny cabins & dorm tent shelters, doing what we can to help one another.

Voices of Others: Dr. King’s Dream

Video

“…I swear there’s more but the homeless tend to disappear…domestic homelessness is lethal…did I just lose my home or my humanity?…It takes the community to change the community…”

  • Michael Gaulden – Home Page
  • Michael Gaulden – Facebook
  • Michael Gaulden – Biography:

Amazon.com

Voices of Others: Somewhere in America

Video

“Kids are late to class for working the midnight shift. They give awards for best attendance but not for keeping your family off the street…every state in America the greatest lessons are the ones you don’t remember learning.”

Brilliant Anti-Slavery Map

Multi-agency anti-slavery partnerships provide a map detailing anti-slavery partnerships between police and local agencies. I simply identify who they are, where they operate and what they are doing.

Simple, clear and easy to use.

Created by: Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the University of Nottingham Rights Lab

Service Project Ideas: Helping the Homeless

If you really want to use your service project to help the homeless, then consider doing the following:

  1. Make a List About YOU: Make a list of all of the key characteristics that describe you, right now, as a person. Try to make it as exhaustive as possible.
    1. What categories do you fit into? For example: race, gender, religion, sexual identity, family situation (e.g.: kids, no kids, married, single), education level, health status (e.g.: healthy, diabetes, food allergies, disabled, etc.)
    2. Identify those categories that you think are most important during homelessness. For example: Diabetes is potentially deadly without proper diet and/or medical care, adult shelters will not take anyone under age 21, and caring for children while homeless is extremely difficult.
  2. Imagine Yourself Homeless: Picture yourself facing some catastrophic financial or physical emergency that leaves you instantly homeless right now. What would you do? Where would you go?
  3. Research: Do a little research and identify those resources that you would attempt to utilize in that situation.
  4. Make Contact: Contact those organizations and tell them you are looking for:
    1. Volunteer work to complete a service project.
    2. Opportunities to meet and work with people who are currently homeless and similar to yourself in a few key ways. Example short lists:
      1. 21 years old, female, no children.
      2. Over 50 with diabetes
      3. 35 years old, male, single parent, 3 kids
      4. 26 years old, lesbian, 2 dogs
  5. Listen: Let the organization tell you what they need help with and then do your best to provide assistance.
  6. Reflect: After a few weeks of volunteer work, sit down and re-imagine yourself homeless. Based on what you now know, what would you do? What are the dangers and challenges other people, just like you, are facing? Are any of those things particularly surprising? What is your biggest fear?

All of this will provide some real insight into what it feels like to be homeless AND the many unique and often maddeningly difficult challenges people surviving homelessness are forced to face.

Follow up that experience by pursuing some tools to help you make a positive impact on poverty and homelessness in the future:

  1. Social Justice: Take a social justice workshop (if you can) and pay particular attention to the justice issues faced by poverty survivors (homeless included).
  2. Mentoring/Internship: If you complete the first part of this plan and decide that you really want to do more – contact the non-profit and ask for a mentor or an internship. Getting to know people who’ve built a career out of fighting poverty and homelessness is far more important and useful than any number of textbooks, news articles, books, workshops, etc.
  3. Emergency Plan: If you were facing a serious emergency that would place you into a homeless situation, what would you do. Take some time with this, really identify the financial and physical needs that would have to be addressed. How can you plan for the worst right now? How can you face a catastrophic financial emergency and get through it? What is your plan? Keeping yourself out of homelessness is important! It’s extremely difficult to survive homelessness, much less combat it while trying to survive. It’s also important to remember…ALWAYS remember!…that anyone can experience homelessness at any time. Poverty is an equal opportunity employer.

-Originally posted to Quora in answer to the question: What can I do as a service project to help out the homeless?

Originally published: 03/22/2017