DePaul Journal for Social Justice hosts panel on homelessness

On April 16, 2015, the DePaul Journal for Social Justice hosted a panel discussion about the rights of people who are homeless. The panel brought together an activist lawyer, community organizer, social justice professor and a national non-profit leader from Chicago and Detroit. The diverse panel allowed for a robust discussion on the issues that people who are homeless face, as well as how large non-profit organizations and attorneys can make a difference in helping to de-criminalize homelessness.

Clark Washington, a community organizer with the Detroit Action Commonwealth​, a longstanding grassroots organization and newly registered non-profit, began the discussion by touching on some of the biggest issues that homeless individuals face on a daily basis. He focused on the issues surrounding a lack of access to identification and government services, housing, and transportation. Following that discussion, Washington shared some of the significant accomplishments of his organization, namely the implementation of Street Outreach Court Detroit, as well as a successful effort to force the City of Detroit to implement and manage warming shelters throughout the city. Washington’s remarks were powerful, and his stories motivating.

Charles Levesque, the Executive Director of Depaul USA​, a nationwide nonprofit committed to helping the homeless and rooted in the Catholic tradition, discussed his organization’s role in helping to implement better housing, healthcare, and access to employment for homeless men in several cities across the country. He also described for the attendees the interplay between homeless rights and the responsibilities that such homeless individuals must uphold in order to be afforded such rights.

Dr. Greg Markus, Professor Emeritus of the University of Michigan and founding organizer of the Detroit Action Commonwealth, began his discussion by explaining the creation of the Detroit Action Commonwealth and sharing the current initiatives of the organization. He also explained how without sufficient government identification an individual cannot attain a job, bus pass, education, or healthcare. Markus made an impassioned plea to the legal community at the event to undertake and support initiatives to aid homeless individuals. According to Markus, lawyers are in a perfect position to help change social policy in favor of people experiencing homelessness. His enthusiasm and honesty was both thought provoking and moving.

Finally, the Laurene Heybach, senior counsel at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless​, discussed the recent enactment of the Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, and how her organization was instrumental in advocating for the bill. She used her experiences to shed light on how similar initiatives, in other mid-western cities where homelessness has become a widespread cause of concern, could be implemented. Her clear care for the homeless community radiated through her words and her gestures, and in doing so she acted as a great role model for young and aspiring public interest attorneys.

The panel discussion served as opportunity for a critical conversation about the injustices in the ways that our country has criminalized people who are homeless.  It is up to those in positions of power to actually make changes to our policies and policing, and to do so in a way that helps the least advantaged in our communities. ​