Leader Robert Henderson speaks at national ‘Housing Not Handcuffs’ conference

By Diane O’Connell, Community Lawyer

Three staff members from the Law Project, along with Community Organizer Keith Freeman and CCH client and leader Robert Henderson, attended the “Housing Not Handcuffs Human Right to Housing Forum” this week in Washington, D.C.

Housing Not Handcuffs is a campaign of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty to end the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. About 200 people attended, including organizers, attorneys, people experiencing homelessness, and government employees. The panels discussed victories and challenges over the last year. Breakout sessions focused on the work moving forward: a coordinated national effort to strike down unconstitutional panhandling laws, strategies to protect the rights of people living in encampments, ending youth homelessness, and promoting renters’ rights.

The highlight of the conference for me was the inspiring participation by Robert Henderson. He was the plaintiff in the first substantive case filed under the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, a case that the CCH Law Project settled this winter.

Robert spoke at the end of the plenary session, with nearly all the attendees at the conference present. He told his story of being at his “lowest point” while living under a bridge, only to have city employees throw away everything he owned, including his photographs and obituaries of family members.

Later, Robert also contributed his lived experience to a breakout session on panhandling. He was arrested twice for panhandling while living on the street. Once he was held in Cook County Jail for 72 hours simply because he had asked for change. Robert was the only person in the session who had personally experienced criminalization for panhandling, so he helped ground the discussion in reality. Throughout the forum, people from all over the country approached Robert to thank him for sharing his story.

The forum was reaffirming but also shed new light on the importance of CCH work representing people who live on the street.  As keynote speaker Leilani Farha, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing explained, U.S. laws go farther than just criminalizing homelessness — they dehumanize people who are homeless. This is illustrated by laws like those in Illinois that criminalize panhandling, because it is a fundamental principle of humanity that people must be able to ask other people for help.

If we recognize those experiencing homelessness as people, why would society deny them a place to sleep? To use the bathroom? To access food being provided to them by other community members? The injustice that we are fighting when we work to build power for homeless people is bigger than homelessness: It is about human rights. We left more committed than ever to struggle for those rights to be recognized for the people who most need them.