By: Tim Houchen
August 8, 2020 —
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) aka the Law Center, announced on Monday August 3, 2020, that Founder and Executive Director Maria Foscarinis will be stepping down later this year after leading the organization for 31 years.
The NLCHP is a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that uses the power of the law to end and prevent homelessness through training, advocacy, impact litigation and public education.
Under Foscarinis’ leadership, the Law Center recently completed a strategic rebranding process and will become known in the future as the National Homelessness Law Center. Despite a change in name for the organization, Foscarinis’ vision for ending homelessness in America will remain the same.
In the mid-1980s, NLCHP’s founder, Maria Foscarinis, was working as a lawyer for a prosperous Washington D.C. law firm when she volunteered to represent homeless families on a pro bono basis. After seeing the impact of first-rate legal advocacy on the lives of homeless people, Maria left the firm with a new goal; to end homelessness in America.
In 1985, she established and directed the Washington, DC office of the National Coalition for the Homeless. She directed campaigns to enact federal legislation to aid the homeless and went on to become an architect of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the first major federal legislation to address homelessness.
In 1989, she established the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center). Since its’ existence, the Law Center has used the power of the law to advocate in town halls, legislatures, courts across the nation and even testifying before Congress on behalf of millions of homeless men, women, children, and families whose voices are seldom heard.
Major victories scored by the Law Center include Martin vs. Boise, a Ninth Circuit holding finding that criminalizing sleeping outside is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and Norton v. City of Springfield, where ordinances banning panhandling were held in violation of First Amendment free speech rights.
A most recent initiative of the Law Center, Housing Not Handcuffs, is a national campaign to stop the criminalization of homelessness—and to push for effective housing policies that end homelessness.
The NLCHP’s work on human rights is equally impressive and pushes the envelope towards submission that the criminalization of persons experiencing homelessness is a violation of human rights law and perhaps that housing is a human right as well.
Foscarinis was influenced by the experiences of family members during and following the devastation of World War II, a devastation that first gave rise to international human rights law with the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.
In 2012, the NLCHP secured—for the first time in history—an admission by the Department of Justice and the Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) that the criminalization of homelessness implicated its human rights treaty obligations under international human rights law set forth in the UDHR. It was the first time any domestic agency recognized a domestic policy as a human rights violation.
Each year the Law Center conducts the National Forum on the Human Right to Housing which brings together hundreds of advocates and officials to Washington, D.C., to organize and strategize on ways they can work to end the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness.
In viewing housing as not only a moral imperative and a key tenant of economic justice, but also as a human right, the Law Center has worked to encourage courts, legislatures, and administrative agencies to consider and incorporate human rights treatises into our legal framework and jurisprudence.
Time for some Universal Declaration
of Human Rights trivia!
Ironically, even though the UDHR was based primarily on American principle and was authored by Eleanor Roosevelt in an effort to continue the work of her late husband and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1948, the UDHR was never signed by a U.S. president until 28 years later when President Jimmy Carter signed the document in 1976. What’s more, the UDHR was never ratified by the states so it has never been recognized as U.S. law by our government.
Could it be that the U.S. is the only country in the world where the criminalization of persons experiencing homelessness is not a violation of international human rights? Is America the only country where housing is not a human right? Probably not, but our government has been put on notice from the United Nations for such violations along with other countries including China, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania.
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Most recently, under Foscarinis’ leadership the Law Center has been especially focused on meeting the challenges the novel coronavirus poses for people experiencing homelessness, including helping to prevent or overturn laws that prohibit people from sleeping in tents or cars when they have nowhere else to stay, issuing policy guidance that was then adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and advocating for all students to have access to distance learning.
“It has been an honor for me to have founded and led the Law Center over the past 31 years, in partnership with a talented and inspiring staff, an accomplished Board of Directors, and an amazing cadre of pro bono lawyers who support and amplify our work,” said Foscarinis. “I leave the organization with a strong foundation of dedicated board leadership, stable financial resources, and a strategy implemented through the tireless efforts of a passionate and talented team. I am happy and proud of the work we have all accomplished together, and I leave knowing the organization is on solid footing and will thrive over the years to come.”
Eve Garrow is a Homeless Policy Analyst with the ACLU Southern California’s Orange County Branch Office. Garrow has worked on the ACLU’s Dignity for All Project since its inception and knows well the influence that Foscarinis’ work with the NLCHP over the years has shaped policies and built strategies to defend the rights of persons experiencing homelessness.
“Under the leadership of Maria Foscarinis, the NLCHP has blossomed into one of the most important economic justice advocacy organizations in the nation. Foscarinis has never tinkered around the edges,” said Garrow during an interview. “Facing down the almost unspeakable cruelty of the U.S.’s response to homelessness, the organization she founded has always aimed for the big, transformational changes that will protect unhoused people from state persecution, advance the right to housing, and heal the soul of our nation.”
It is difficult to believe that someone as hard-working and so compassionate about ending homelessness, as Maria Foscarinis surely is, would leave her post at the Law Center for something that was not bigger than what she had already been doing for so long.
The question that many people are asking is, what will she be doing next?
Dr. Robert Marbut is the Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). Prior to his post in Washinton D.C. Dr. Marbut worked as a consultant on homeless issues for several cities in California including Buena Park. Marbut was asked if he had any insight into what Foscarinis might do after her long career with the Law Center.
“From what I understand she (Foscarinis) wants to write a book,” Marbut remarked.
The accomplishments of the NLCHP under the direction of Maria Foscarinis would more than fill one book. As a pioneering author of strategies for ending homelessness through litigation, Foscarinis would be sorely missed during a time when litigation seems to be the only strategy that works.
Maria Foscarinis is a champion for persons experiencing homelessness and champions sometimes write books, but they never quit!
This article was written by: Tim Houchen
Here are some links to NLCHP reports on criminalization of homelessness that
you might be interested in reading
You can view or download these reports safely in Adobe Cloud
You may also print them, but be aware that some
reports are more than 100 pages long
Is there a high rate of death among persons experiencing homelessness in your community?
and let us know!
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