Legal Defense Clinics to Launch

After fifteen years of planning, strategizing, connecting, and building, Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) is proud to announce a huge step in our work: the official launch of the Legal Defense Clinic (LDC) Project! With the support of the National Homelessness Law Center, WRAP’s local member groups are developing a national network of legal defense clinics that promote access to justice by bringing dedicated legal services to the neighborhoods where unhoused people live. These are the neighborhoods where WRAP’s local member groups have built deep relationships with unhoused community members, and they are the heart of the national movement for “House Keys Not Sweeps,” a coordinated effort to protect the rights of those living in encampments while advocating for homes for everyone. 

Why We Need this Project

Activities such as sleeping, sitting, eating, and standing are necessary for survival. But too often, these activities are illegal in public spaces, forcing unhoused people to violate laws in order to simply exist. Before citations stack up, such violations are of such a low level that people rarely receive legal representation. Without representation, unhoused people do not receive an adequate defense. They are left with a criminal record that prevents them from obtaining housing and other services, accumulating citations, fines, and warrants and often ending up in jail or prison—perpetuating an unending cycle of criminalization and trauma.

Our legal system has long been weaponized to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the privileged. It is no coincidence that the same people targeted by discriminatory laws in the past and present are dramatically overrepresented in our unhoused population. Oppression under modern anti-homeless, anti-poor laws continues to be stratified along lines of race, class, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, and disability, with impacts magnified along intersectional lines. For example, Black, Brown, and Disabled persons experience homelessness at disproportionately higher rates than white, non-Disabled persons, and they are also more likely to be punished—and punished more severely—under anti-homeless laws.

How It Works

To protect our communities while building toward a more just world, WRAP’s members and the Law Center are partnering to develop a coordinated network of local legal defense clinics in WRAP’s member cities, with planned expansion into a national model of community organizing and legal services collaborations. Through years of street outreach, WRAP member groups have identified the following key issue areas for LDC legal counsel focus: anti-homeless tickets and arrests, parking citations and vehicle tows, stay-away orders, trespassing, private security harassment, property confiscation, and warrants for all of the above.

The first step in establishing legal representation is for organizers from WRAP’s local member groups to conduct outreach in their communities. Outreach entails establishing close communication with unhoused neighbors, providing mutual aid support, conducting surveys about experiences with law enforcement and unmet legal needs, and taking people’s concerns seriously. Through outreach, organizers connect people who have been targeted by anti-homeless policies to their local LDC. After an intake and initial connection with an attorney, people retain legal representation, and LDC staff and WRAP member group organizers jointly support community members through the entire legal process. 

With a larger goal of systemic change, LDCs play a key role in ensuring that legal work helps build power in our communities. Legal staff and organizers collaborate to track patterns of rights violations in real time, developing an evidentiary record and foundation for impact litigation and policy advocacy. Organizers bring this information to community meetings, where community members strategize about how to take longer-term collective action, such as mounting organizing-based direct action campaigns, pursuing impact litigation, and/or engaging in policy change processes and other forms of advocacy.

The Impact 

By establishing legal representation, the LDC Project interrupts traumatic cycles of criminalization and fills a fundamental gap in legal advocacy for unhoused individuals. For instance, in LA, WRAP member group LACAN’s small-scale legal defense clinic work has resulted in dismissals in an overwhelming majority of cases—a truly transformative outcome for people who are criminalized for basic survival.

On a collective level, by tying outreach, direct action, and legal strategies together to inform larger impact litigation and policy change efforts, the LDC Project adds critical tools to our movement to interrupt the criminalization of people surviving while unhoused. Further, by scaling up the LDC Project nationwide in a coordinated network, we are fundamentally stitching together local groups, building power amongst even more unhoused people and bolstering grassroots organizing against the criminalization of racialized poverty. This project builds on a long legacy of abolitionist, anti-criminalization organizing led by frontline communities!

What’s Next

WRAP members have implemented the LDC model at a small scale in LA and San Francisco, including building relationships between organizers and legal staff, creating organizing and legal materials, and establishing procedures and protocols. Our task now is to create continuity between individual sites while adapting to local conditions, building a network of consistent, connected LDCs in multiple cities. As of October 1, 2021, the LDC project is staffed full-time by an Equal Justice Works fellow and soon-to-be attorney. By the end of 2022, we aim to have LA and San Francisco clinics fully operating. Throughout 2022, we also plan to lay groundwork to build LDCs in one or two additional WRAP member cities, with planned expansion over the next few years into a national network. Ultimately, our goal is to build the infrastructure and resources necessary to enable many more local groups who are accountable to their communities to operate clinics; in this way, the LDC Project supports our local communities while simultaneously contributing to our national movement for House Keys Not Sweeps.

WRAP and our members and supporters are fighting for an END to criminalization and for the right for housing for all. We could not do this work without the support of all of you. Please help us reach our goal of raising $25,000 by the end of 2021 to continue the fight for systemic change!