2016 Alexander Prize winner Maria Foscarinis

2016 Alexander Prize winner Maria Foscarinis

The Good Fight

Homelessness is not a crime, argues 2016 Alexander Law Prize winner

2016 Alexander Law Prize winner Maria Foscarinis is battling those who seek to make homelessness a crime.

It’s hard to solve a problem when those in power tell victims that their very existence breaks the law. 

Yet in many cities, that’s what’s happening with the problem of homelessness, said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Foscarinis recently spent a day at SCU to receive this year’s Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize from Santa Clara University School of Law, which honors those who have used their legal careers to help alleviate injustice and inequity. Her day included speaking to students in Prof. David Sloss’s Property Law class, attending a panel on Bay Area homeless issues, and touring and visiting SCU’s Northern California Innocence Project and Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center.

Foscarinis says more and more jurisdictions have passed or proposed laws making it illegal to do things that a homeless person must do to exist -- like sleep in public when there are no shelters, live out of their cars, or go to the bathroom in public when there are no public facilities.

Foscarinis says her Center has fought such “criminalization of homelessness” laws, sometimes successfully, on many fronts: getting statements of support from the Department of Justice in a key lawsuit; securing buy-in from the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness; and working toward getting the Housing and Urban Development department to use its funding to dissuade cities from passing homelessness-criminalization laws. A nationwide campaign on the issue, spearheaded by the Center and other groups, will launch in June.

“It would be nice if we had a (constitutional) right to housing, and all we had to do was enforce that right,” said Foscarinis. Instead, she and the Center have had to practice “do it yourself law,” which “is a long process, and the payoff can take years,” she said.

The other constant battle, said Foscarinis, is persuading lawmakers that the most cost-effective, humane and sensible solution to homelessness is to actually facilitate creation of affordable housing, an approach that was gutted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  As a result of tax, policy and legal changes since then, there are currently an estimated 2.5 million homeless children in the U.S., and probably three times as many homeless adults, she said. An estimated  7.2 million people live in undesirable “doubled up” housing situations, due to lack of options.

“We have not always had mass homelessness in the United States,” she said.  “The leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.”

At the Mar. 21 award celebration at Adobe Lodge, Foscarinis described how she got involved in the homelessness issue after working on a pro bono case involving Long Island, N.Y., families denied emergency shelter, while she was with the large law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.  She decided that by devoting herself to helping homeless clients “I could really make a difference. My corporate clients could carry on fine without me, but these clients might not.”

Foscarinis was the unanimous choice of the Alexander Law Prize committee for this year’s Alexander Law Prize, because since 1985 she’s run “the only national organization that uses the power of the law to end and prevent homelessness in America,” said Francisco Rivera Juaristi, assistant clinical professor of law and chair of the committee, who introduced her at the event.  



Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, was awarded the 2016 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize on Mar. 21. Photo by Adam Hays.