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November 30, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Heroes: Maria Foscarinis, Eric Tars and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

by Mathew Mecoli

A hero for human rights in the space of economic justice could operate across many areas. The issues of economic justice are wide-ranging and far-reaching, and the causes of economic injustice span the breadth and depth of our society. At its core, economic justice is about poverty, but poverty itself is multifaceted and must often be addressed obliquely with improvements in criminal justice, fiscal policy, environmental reform, and access to health care.

To be a leader in this space and to be honored for heroics among a field of heroes, then, is to demonstrate great passion and great works both on behalf of the impoverished and also in furtherance of the tenants of human rights. It is advocacy on behalf of people and it is advocacy on behalf of an idea—an idea that the most central element of a person is their dignity.

"At its core, economic justice is about poverty, but poverty itself is multifaceted..."

"At its core, economic justice is about poverty, but poverty itself is multifaceted..."

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), its founder and executive director Maria Foscarinis, and its legal director Eric Tars exemplify this dedication.

Over the past 30 years, from legislatures and town halls and courtrooms across the country, they have advocated for millions through policy, education, and litigation. Their concrete and successful efforts on behalf of the homeless have improved real lives while simultaneously advancing the framework of international human rights law domestically.

Among their many major legal victories are Lampkin v. D.C., NLCHP v. Suffolk County, and A.E. v. Carlynton School District, all upholding education rights for homeless children; Martin v. Boise, a Ninth Circuit holding finding that criminalizing sleeping outside is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment; and Norton v. City of Springfield, wherein ordinances banning panhandling were held in violation of First Amendment free speech rights.

One of their most recent initiatives, the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign, combats homelessness through housing-based solutions by bringing together diverse partners.

Their work on human rights is equally impressive.

In 2012, the NLCHP secured—for the first time in history—an admission by the Department of Justice and the Interagency Council on Homelessness that the criminalization of homelessness implicated its human rights treaty obligations under international human rights law. It was the first time any domestic agency recognized a domestic policy as a human rights violation.

Two years later, they published Human Rights to Human Reality, a 10-step guide to strategic human rights advocacy within the United States designed to help other organizations utilize human rights in their advocacy.

Their annual National Forum on the Human Right to Housing brings together hundreds of advocates and officials each year.

In viewing housing as not only a moral imperative and a key tenant of economic justice, but also as a human right, they have worked to encourage courts, legislatures, and administrative agencies to consider and incorporate human rights treatises into our legal framework and jurisprudence.

Maria Foscarinis has served as executive director of the NLCHP since she founded it 30 years ago. Maria served as a primary architect of the landmark McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 and has been a tireless advocate since. The McKinney-Vento Act has led to 500 formally vacant properties turned into housing, daycare, job training, food production, and more for more than 2 million homeless or poor persons every year. Maria has testified before Congress, published extensively, and litigated precedent-setting cases, all on behalf of the legal rights of homeless persons.

Eric Tars is the legal director of the NLCHP and the counsel of record on many of its cases. Eric is a chief architect of the strategy of using human rights to form an enforceable right to housing and has led national efforts including a campaign to repeal anti-panhandling laws, given testimony before UN entities, and spearheaded the launch of Housing Not Handcuffs. He also serves as the vice-chair of the U.S. Human Rights Network Board and teaches human rights advocacy at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

Both Foscarinis and Tars are influenced by the experiences of their 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 in 1948.

So, on the occasion of their 30th anniversary, for their work on behalf of those experiencing homelessness and poverty, their commitment to improving the conditions of those suffering from economic injustice, and their dedication to advancing human rights domestically, Human Rights magazine recognizes the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, its founder Maria Foscarinis, its legal director Eric Tars, and its many talented and dedicated staff and supporters as human rights heroes.

Mathew Mecoli is a data engineer at The Hartford. He serves as co-chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and as the publications chair on the Section's Council.