Homelessness & Housing Justice

by PBI intern Isabella Brill

Last month when the Super Bowl was held at the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, a sudden move to shut down a nearby homeless encampment focused the public’s attention on a longstanding issue — homelessness. In the past year, homelessness has become an important topic amongst state and city leaders in Los Angeles, where the population has increased to over sixty thousand people in Los Angeles County. This estimate includes people that are unhoused and live amongst the street. However, it could be much larger due to the difficulty in finding and counting homeless people, and multiple delays in the annual point-in-time count due to COVID-19. The homeless population lacks funds for basic necessities, medical care, and legal needs. Of course, Los Angeles is only one example of a city facing a crisis in homelessness in recent months.

An Eye toward Housing Justice

As previously covered in The PBEye’s recent article about the Homeless Court Movement, some homeless individuals are facing charges against them that essentially criminalizes being homeless. Organizations such as the American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness & Poverty are establishing homeless courts to deliver legal aid. The courts are a step in the right direction for helping the homeless population, especially veterans still facing legal issues, but do not address the root causes of homelessness or the immediate solutions of seeking shelter. Another article concerning COVID-19 and Housing Insecurity discusses how COVID-19 has increased the need for affordable housing due to millions suffering. The pandemic has led to multiple pieces of legislation passed to address the issues of decreasing wages and increasing need for cheaper housing. Additionally, this blog has suggested More Ways to Combat Homelessness by using pro bono and advocacy projects that dedicate time and effort into this issue. These articles and more include detailed information, including ways to increase housing justice through pro bono. This article builds on our past reporting to address the issue of housing the homeless.

Addressing the Issue of Housing the Homeless

A number of proposals have been put forward in LA County that illustrate potential pathways for change. Some leaders and candidates pledge to end homeless encampments and house thousands of people in shelters, while others argue that forcing people into shelters does not always suit their needs. Earlier this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a $2 billion plan to build tiny homes and shelters that would build connections to essential services such as medical care. This would set up almost 44,000 beds in an attempt to remove homeless camps off the sides of the street and move people into a temporary shelter where they can progress.

In addition to proposals from city and state leaders, a coalition of labor unions, housing advocates and progressive activists are petitioning for a ballot measure in the upcoming 2022 election that would increase taxes on real estate transactions to allocate money for permanent housing for the homeless. This “United to House L.A.” proposed ballot initiative, which needs a simple majority vote to pass, would place a 4% tax on properties above $5 million. Historically, voters in LA have supported funding housing for the homeless, including by passing Proposition HHH, which consisted of a 1.2 billion dollar bond to fund homeless housing in 2016, and passing Measure H in 2017, which involved a 10-year, quarter-cent sales tax increase.

Lawyers and law firms together have played a role in addressing this issue as well. On February 15, 2022, in a lawsuit over the homeless encampments filed by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter ruled that there must be a mandatory settlement conference where LA city and county officials construct a solution to this ongoing problem of homelessness. Some have argued that the solution should be up to state and city leaders to decide considering the upcoming election, but the federal judge pointed to lack of accountability with regard to the prior Proposition HHH.

Pro Bono Opportunities to Help Address Homelessness

Pro bono is a great way to address homelessness and contribute to society. In Los Angeles, the Inner City Law Centerprovides pro bono opportunities such as eviction defense, homeless veterans project, housing litigation, citation clearing, policy and litigation research and advocacy, and specialty consultations. They also offer pro bono training for those eager to volunteer for efforts to serve one of the largest homeless populations in this country. In 2020, they accumulated over 15,000 hours of support and over 575 volunteers which was equivalent to 7 million dollars.

Another pro bono source is the Legal Aid Foundation in Los Angeles. They need pro bono assistance with fee waivers, pre-screened cases, self-help, client intake, legal clinics, and support on cases on the homeless and their legal issues. Their priorities are the people of Los Angeles and to achieve equal justice through either direct representation, community education or adjusting the system. Their foundation has supported this cause for almost 90 years and will continue to fight for the homeless.

Beyond Los Angeles, the need for volunteers throughout the nation to aid the homeless is constant. One example is the Homeless Persons Representation Project Inc. (HPRP), which is Maryland’s only legal service dedicated to the homeless. Not only do they offer free legal services involving counsel, education, advice and representation, but also they deliver these services through shelters, soup kitchens, welfare offices and community services to cater to their clientele. They have special projects involving economic justice, veterans’ legal assistance, a homeless youth initiative, housing justice, and reducing barriers to housing and employment involving criminal records. These projects will help combat the homelessness problem in their area.

Another organization is the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Legal Assistance Project, which has volunteer attorneys and paralegals help secure shelter, obtain housing subsidies, family support in emergency situations of future homelessness, homeless disability assistance and food assistance. They also work on policy initiatives to ensure clients’ rights and clarify government and contractor responsibilities while also maintaining a healthy environment in Washington D.C. The outcome has been around $9 million in value of legal services in 2020.

In 15 cities across the U.S., Project H.E.L.P (Homeless Experience Legal Protection) assists the homeless. This program is growing with locations in over six states. They have partnerships across the country to appeal to a larger audience. This organization addresses the issues of identification documents, child custody issues, child support issues, creditor law, disability law, driver license suspensions, government benefits, immigration law, housing issues, landlord/tenant law and minor criminal or traffic violations. They provide all of these with the determination of following through for quality assurance.

Additionally, the National Homeless Law Center supplies pro bono work for the homeless at a national level with almost 3.5 million individuals assisted by this center. This center advocates for housing, decriminalizing the homeless, youth and education rights and surplus properties. They address these topics in detail and need help from volunteers that are interested and want to either develop, maintain or oversee these projects. These pro bono opportunities are beneficial to society as a whole and cannot be done by city and state leaders. Volunteer lawyers can have just as great of an impact when it comes to reassuring those in distress and supporting their legal needs as best as they can.

Those that are homeless can also be hopeless. They have potentially lost everything they valued and are underrepresented amongst those who have the power to make a change. Lawyers have been and are able to aid those in need of legal services before it’s too late. Advocating for better public policies, as well as volunteering your time to provide direct legal services, are important ways to get involved on this critical issue. Volunteering can provide great practice for your future career, but can also have a life-changing impact on an individual or family in a time of need.

Learn More about Housing Justice with PBI!

The 2022 Pro Bono Institute Annual Conference will feature a session at its Virtual Program that discusses pro bono attorney involvement in housing issues. The session, titled “Housing Justice Collaborative: Building Pro Bono Capacity to Help the Most Vulnerable Tenants,” will address how pro bono attorneys can help vulnerable tenants to keep them in their homes, building on a case study in Orange County, California. It involves knowledgeable speakers from Community Legal Aid SoCal and pro bono attorneys, answering important questions about serving underserved communities with regard to housing justice.