#HomesNotHandcuffs: Grassroots Leadership’s Advocacy to End Criminalization of Homelessness

Texas-based group Grassroots Leadership is dedicated to working alongside those who have been affected by unfair immigration policies, mass incarceration, and unjust public laws. Committed to the eradication of all forms of criminalization of marginalized peoples, the organization has a twofold goal: changing policy and changing power dynamics. The organization views advocacy as a critical tool in their toolbox for furthering this mission.

Founded in 1980 as a civil rights organization, Grassroots Leadership’s staff includes people who have experienced and been impacted by incarceration and immigration detention and deportation. Enlisting the voices and people of those affected by unfair and unjust policies shifts the idea of who the experts are on the issues. Though there are obstacles to doing this work, it’s worth doing when you see people who have been marginalized and excluded from systems of power and decision-making get up, fight back, and win.

A key problem the organization is addressing now is the criminalization of homelessness. This is a pressing issue across the United States, with many communities – including the city of Austin – passing and implementing ordinances that prohibit camping, panhandling, and sitting or lying in certain areas downtown. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has found that an increasing number of cities are choosing to respond to the dramatic rise in the number of homeless encampments by passing laws that criminalize and punish people living on the street.

These ordinances specifically target and punish the homeless who have no choice but to settle outside if they are unable to find any place to shelter. Such laws are counterproductive as well as ineffective because they make it more difficult to exit homelessness. Not being able to pay bail and having a criminal record can have profound, negative effects, making it difficult for people experiencing homelessness to obtain housing or employment, or exercise their right to vote.

Ending homeless incarceration is possible, and over the past several years, Grassroots Leadership has worked in a #HomesNotHandcuffs coalition to overturn harmful ordinances in the city of Austin. Coalition members include people experiencing homelessness and groups such as  Texas Advocates for Justice and Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

In June, the Austin City Council took some steps to decriminalize homelessness by voting to modify the language of the ordinances so that activities such as camping, or sitting or lying down in public, are no longer criminalized unless they endanger the health and safety of the individual or public.

But there is more work to do, and Grassroots Leadership views ending homeless incarceration as part of a much broader movement to end criminalization as a solution for social issues. Current advocacy priorities including working to close immigration detention centers and reduce penalties for possession of low-level drugs.

Grassroots Leadership knows that building the base of support for its campaigns is a key aspect of this work, and there are many ways people can contribute, from showing up to meetings or rallies at city hall, to volunteering to support a deportation defense hotline. When people get involved, it can make all the difference and have an impact on ending unjust policies that prey on the marginalized – and dehumanize all of us.