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A thousand suits to keep homeless out of the cold

A wave of anti-homeless sentiment is washing over the country, with ordinances against begging, sleeping, camping, loitering and vagrancy now on the books in 16 U.S. cities, including Santa Monica.

Meanwhile, the country’s political leaders are debating sweeping budget cuts that could push the numbers of homeless people even higher, according to Madeleine Stoner, associate professor of social work.

In the face of these trends, Stoner’s new book – The Civil Rights of Homeless People: Law, Social Policy and Social Work Practice (published by Aldine de Gruyter Inc.) – couldn’t be more timely.

Stoner, a longtime champion of the homeless, surveyed more than 1,000 class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of homeless people during the last decade. Intended primarily for human service professionals and community activists, her book is a guide to court decisions and government policies that affect the homeless.

The Civil Rights of Homeless People also argues that the courts should remain a potent source of social change, just as they have since the early civil rights movement.

“The most significant pro-gress for homeless people has been won through hard-fought litigation,” Stoner said.u0000

Since her days as a welfare rights organizer , Stoner has valued the role of litigation in the fight for social change.

“It was very clear to [social activists in the ’60s] that social change needed to be fought for on all fronts, including the courts,” she said.

In fact, Stoner contends, until the Clinton Administration introduced an extensive homeless initiative in 1994, the only way to advocate for homeless people’s rights was through the courts. Today, the federal government is spending nearly $1 billion to help the homeless make a permanent transition from the streets and shelters to decent housing.

Stoner is trained in the law, having studied poverty law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School while earning her doctorate in social work at Bryn Mawr College. The Civil Rights of Homeless People is not a work of legal scholarship, however. Instead, the book explains how certain laws, potential legal positions and strategies can help social advocates challenge anti-homeless action locally and nationally. Stoner also demonstrates how the interaction of law and social-policy practice advances entitlement, equity and empowerment goals.

Stoner describes the homeless as the “third wave” of victims of civil rights violations. The first and second wave, she explains, were African Americans and the poor.

“Homelessness is a condition that melds racism and poverty together. It’s a different face of the same problem,” she said.

A faculty member in the School of Social Work since 1980, Stoner is also the author of Inventing a Non-Homeless World: A Public Policy Agenda for Preventing Homelessness (1990, Peter Lang), in which she discussed developing permanent solutions to homelessness.

She served for many years as a volunteer on the Santa Monica Mayor’s Task Force, and currently is president of the board of directors of Step Up on Second Street, a mental health program and residential facility. Her other community service affiliations include the Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services Agency and the Southern California InterUniversity Consortium on Homelessness and Poverty.

Stoner’s advocacy work for social justice began in 1967, as a student intern for a welfare-rights organizer at the Philadelphia-based Lighthouse Settlement. Later she worked with staff lawyers at the federally funded Community Legal Services Corp., fighting in the War on Poverty. The corporation began to be dismantled in 1981. Stoner said it’s no coincidence that 1981 marks the year homelessness exploded in America.

“The withdrawal of a secure safety net promulgated a new form of poverty,” she writes. “The truly poor became the devastated poor…. Homelessness is the face of poverty in the last decades of the century.”

Like many other advocates, Stoner began to despair over the national failure to find long-term solutions and the increasing tide of urban anti-homeless sentiment. Her new book grew out of that despair. It was, she writes in the preface, an attempt to “[search] for the cup that remained half-full.”

She found reason for optimism in “the record of successful impact litigation that preserved the fundamental rights of homeless people to social entitlements and constitutional protections in their own country.”u0000

Among other legal issues, the book surveys legal challenges to anti-homeless laws, ordinances and actions, such as homeless sweeps and arrest campaigns, across the nation. Stoner identifies key court rulings that have sought to protect the civil and constitutional rights of homeless people, and she analyzes the issues involved in each case.

Because so much of American law is based on property rights, Stoner said, advocates had long feared that “once people became homeless, they would lose their civil rights because they didn’t have property. Lawyers and social advocates really had to go to work to make sure that those fundamental civil rights were, in fact, restored for homeless people.”

In suits that relate to entitlements, Stoner has found court challenges to be very successful and effective. Civil rights complaints – seeking human services, housing and shelter, income, child welfare, education, health care, psychiatric treatment, counseling services and voting rights – have generally been upheld. Advocates have also won several victories in protecting fundamental rights of the homeless, such as freedom from search and seizure and the right to due process.

Less hopeful are court decisions that have been handed down in connection with laws seeking to criminalize homelessness. Public sentiment lately has turned against the homeless, and many key decisions are still pending.

“We’re at a time when the anti-homeless laws are looking very ominous, and the courts are turning very conservative,” Stoner said.

The backlash against homeless people has been emerging over the past two years, expressing itself in “a rash of local ordinances intended to criminalize homeless people by sweeping them off the streets or public parks, prohibiting begging, sleeping, sitting or loitering in public places,” Stoner writes. “Overwhelmed and angry at the growing numbers of homeless people, [local governments] are trying to address the problem by criminalizing the condition rather than addressing its causes.”

A survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty revealed anti-homeless actions in 16 cities and found that 80 laws had been passed against begging, sleeping, camping, loitering, destruction of property, vagrancy and unequal enforcement. Many of the anti-camping ordinances carry significant fines or six months in jail for violations.

Stoner believes lawmakers must strike a balance between the rights of the community – which entitle residents to protection from crime and disease – with the civil rights of the homeless.

She personally has had to grapple with this issue as a member of the Mayor’s Task Force in Santa Monica. “We tried hard to take positions and follow recommendations based on ideology and our knowledge of local zoning, parking and other ordinances. Most of us were sophisticated people, but we didn’t know about most of the laws pertaining to homeless people,” she said.

In the end, the task force produced a rather ambiguous anti-encampment ordinance, although Stoner herself opposed criminalizing homeless people for behavior that related to their situation.

Such action by Santa Monica and other cities has been recently sanctioned by the California Supreme Court, which ruled in April to uphold Santa Ana’s sweeping anti-camping ordinance – designed to discourage homeless people from residing in the city’s public spaces.

The case will probably be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The proliferation of anti-camping and anti-homeless laws that tend to criminalize people makes it even more important to understand what rights all homeless people have,” Stoner said.

A thousand suits to keep homeless out of the cold

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