Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP) dropped a series of reports on May 7 that aim to provide advocates, homeless people and policymakers with a suite of tools and legal thinking around solutions to the region’s homelessness crisis.
The event is the effective equivalent of Christmas for homeless policy nerds.
Traditionally, the law students delve into the minutiae of local ordinances to dig out ways in which the current legal systems and strategies contribute to and perpetuate homelessness by criminalizing life-sustaining activities such as sitting down or asking for help.
This year, the papers took a different tack.
Five of the six papers take a deep dive into policy choices currently under debate in the city of Seattle and elsewhere to give a DIY guide to solutions to homelessness.
Full HRAP reports: Begging Laws, Authorized Encampments, Safe Parking Programs, Guide to Navigating Court, Accessory Dwelling Units, Religious Land Use
The students in most instances used case studies and interviews with local individuals and groups doing the work in the trenches to examine strategies around authorized homeless encampments, the rights of the faith community, accessory dwelling units in private homes and safe-parking programs for vehicle residents.
One gives a primer to people experiencing homelessness who have been swept up in the criminal justice system on how to best prepare for their court date and their inevitably overworked public defender. A sixth, Begging for Change, follows the usual pattern of rigorously investigating and critiquing laws that do little to increase public safety and more to punish the existence of the visibly poor.
Each of the topic areas came out of discussions with community partners, said Sara Rankin, the director of HRAP.
“We’re still not giving up on the point that these laws are punitive and create homelessness, but in the interim, what are the operational, logistical, legal, public relations and political considerations that go into these interim solutions?” Rankin asked.
Rankin’s students took these global questions and sought out individuals and organizations already implementing these stop-gap solutions to create a how-to guide highlighting best practices and areas of caution or improvement for any community looking to dip its collective toe into the deep end.
Some recommendations are straightforward questions of law. With regard to placing an authorized homeless encampment or accessory dwelling unit, for example, the students give practical information about assessing issues around land use and zoning as well as a rundown of various flavors of a landlord-tenant relationship.
In Seattle, for instance, the BLOCK Project run by Facing Homelessness helps place tenants into accessory dwelling units on private property but maintains ownership of the housing unit and takes on the logistical burden of leasing with approval of the host family.
A pilot accessory dwelling unit program in Los Angeles County, on the other hand, goes with a more traditional approach, allowing the property owner to develop and lease such a dwelling unit with government support.
Other aspects of the reports swerve into the hypothetical. The encampment report includes a detailed discussion of governance models using evidence from the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (share), Camp Second Chance on Myers Way and “forced” communities such as the sanctioned encampments in Tacoma and San Diego.
Each takes a slightly different approach to managing the community of people who live there, which can be in flux as people move from the encampments into permanent housing.
Governance becomes a thorny question if new residents take umbrage with rules that they did not have a hand in forming, and relationships can become strained. Camp Second Chance, for example, separated from its original nonprofit sponsor, Patacara, after conflicts over power dynamics and decision-making.
Taking these potential hurdles into consideration early into planning processes may help prevent future authorized encampments from falling into similar pitfalls.
“We’re seeing so many cities try authorized encampments, and each city is doing it differently,” said Evanie Parr, author of the brief. “We wanted to compare and contrast the different ways so cities can select the most useful elements.”
One valuable aspect of the students’ work is that the papers gather the experiences of individual programs together for the first time, allowing people operating on tight budgets and timelines the benefit of others’ experiences.
“What are different programs doing that result in success or failure?” Rankin said. “It gave us a framework for all of the requests that we had.”
While students focused this year on profiling programs in operation and interrogating their successes and failures, the “Begging for Change” team went back to HRAP’s greatest hits: showing how laws on the books target homeless people and perpetuate homelessness.
HRAP looked into laws in 64 Washington cities and found 121 ordinances that prohibit or restrict begging. Violating many of these ordinances can saddle a person with a misdemeanor, forcing poor and disadvantaged people into the criminal justice system.
Students requested public records from 11 cities to see how the laws were being enforced.
Only Marysville and Lakewood provided evidence showing that they had cited people for violating begging laws in the past five years. In Lakewood, all people found guilty received 90-day jail sentences. Sixty percent of people found guilty for begging in restricted areas also received a fine ranging from $300 to $500.
Anti-begging ordinances come in various styles that HRAP says may violate the First Amendment because they restrict content-based speech. Others outlaw “aggressive” begging, but fail to define “aggressive,” leaving that to the subjective interpretation of the complainant.
Rankin and her team recognize that there is still more work to do, and that in many cases the DIY guides are jumping off points that raise more questions that need to be answered.
Fortunately, there’s always next year.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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