Maria Foscarinis

March 8, 2019

“Without housing, nothing else is truly possible.”

Maria Foscarinis is the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and has advocated for solutions to homelessness at the national level since 1985. We discuss why housing is a human right, how criminalization of the homeless is both perverse and ineffective, and examine the leading reasons behind the affordable housing crisis.

The housing crisis started with a policy decision 

The leading cause of the crisis is cutbacks to federal funding for housing that started during the Reagan administration. In 1978, the federal government was funding over 300,000 new units of affordable housing each year, which decreased to under 3,000 each year by 1983. Only one in four poor people who qualify for federal housing assistance today actually receives it. Low income workers, such as minimum wage earners, cannot afford housing based on affordability guidelines set by the federal government.

Housing is a human right 

Without housing, nothing else is truly possible. Housing is essential for families, children, adults, the ill, and the disabled. Housing is recognized as a human right by the United Nations and by international treaties, including some that the United States has signed on to. However, even though Congress has set a goal for decent, affordable housing for every family 50 years ago, it has not made it a right. A large and growing percentage of the homeless are families with children. Studies have shown that childhood homelessness is a risk factor for adult homelessness.

The criminalization of homelessness 

A wide variety of laws criminalize homelessness by making it a crime to be in public spaces, such as sleeping or begging in public, living in your car, or even sitting down in public. Cities have fined the homeless, arrested them, and put them in jail. Studies show that these measures are more expensive for a city than to provide housing, which actually solves the problem. When the homeless are released from jail, they still don’t have a place to live, but now have an arrest record, making it more difficult to find a job or housing.

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Maria Foscarinis is the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and has advocated for solutions to homelessness at the national level since 1985. Among other honors, Maria is the recipient of the 2006 Public Interest Achievement Award from the Public Interest Law Foundation at Columbia Law School and the 2016 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize from Santa Clara University’s School of Law.