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The ACLU has long fought to protect and defend the civil and human rights of people experiencing homelessness by challenging government and police practices that treat homeless persons as criminals and make it harder for them to secure and maintain needed housing, employment and benefits. Landmark litigation brought by the ACLU includes Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a suit to prevent the LAPD from ticketing and arresting homeless persons who sit, sleep or lie on public sidewalks, and Valentini v. Shin­­­seki, a suit against the Veterans Administration and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System for discriminating against homeless veterans.

The Dignity for All Project combines ACLU’s litigation on behalf of homeless plaintiffs with advocacy focused on the social policy changes needed to end homelessness in Southern California communities and advance human dignity. This includes expanding access to affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, medical and mental health care, and benefits, as well as limiting counterproductive government and police practices. Such provision for basic human needs and protection from government-sanctioned harassment is necessary to ensure that even the poorest Americans can effectively participate in our democracy and fully exercise their civil rights and civil liberties.

Key to our advocacy is a focus on ending homelessness through the “Housing First” model, which gets people off the streets and into their own affordable, permanent apartments as quickly as possible. For the model to be effective, local governments must develop sufficient affordable housing to meet the demand. Chronically homeless persons – that is, people who suffer from mental or physical disabilities and experience frequent or long bouts of homelessness – are least able to exit homelessness and more than twice as likely as non-chronic homeless people to be living in the streets. Their need for safe and permanent housing is particularly urgent. They require permanent supportive housing, which combines immediate permanent, affordable housing with appropriate health and mental health services.

The Project works throughout Southern California, but our work is currently focused in Orange County and Los Angeles:

  • Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation – and least affordable. On any given night over 4200 people experience homelessness and, of those, approximately 800 are chronically homeless. Orange County’s response has been woefully inadequate. Because the County has not taken the lead in funding and building much-needed affordable and permanent supportive housing, local cities have responded to the increase in visible homelessness by passing punitive and counterproductive measures that criminalize homelessness. The County has the resources to end homelessness and must do so by prioritizing the creation of permanent supportive housing for disabled, homeless residents, protecting the civil and human rights of people experiencing homelessness, and closing the housing affordability gap.
  • Los Angeles has long been dubbed the “homeless capital” of America. Indeed, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 report to the U.S. Congress, it ranks first in the number of homeless individuals and chronically homeless people and second behind New York City in homeless persons per capita. Homelessness is on the rise in Los Angeles, where over 26,000 people are living without a home (in L.A. County that number exceeds 40,000).  Given shortage of shelter space and permanent housing options, about 70% of those individuals are living in the streets or in cars. The City and County routinely engage in practices designed to move homeless persons out of public spaces such as the sidewalks of skid row, where gentrification has done little to improve the prospects for people who are homeless. Recently the City passed harmful ordinances that will criminalize the possession of tents, makeshift shelter, and other bulky items in public places. In its recent report, the City’s administrative office showed that the City of Los Angeles spends $100 million a year on homelessness, over half of which goes to law enforcement practices that do nothing to address root causes, and in fact perpetuate, homelessness. Instead, the City and County should devote their resources to developing sufficient affordable and permanent supportive housing.

In addition to litigation and advocacy, the Dignity for All Project serves as a resource for homeless individuals, providers, local governments and law enforcement agencies, and other stakeholders. To contact us, please email dignity@aclusocal.org.

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