Baltimore-Based Legal Group for Homeless Opens Montgomery Co. Office
By Meghan Thompson
The Homeless Persons Representation Project, a Baltimore-based organization that provides legal services to homeless people, has opened a new office in Rockville to combat homelessness in Montgomery County.
While the group has run programs in Montgomery County, which has the second highest homeless population in Maryland, for almost 30 years, its first bricks-and-mortar office opened in April. The nonprofit formally celebrated its new digs on Wednesday night.
HPRP provides free legal services to the homeless to remove legal barriers preventing them from obtaining permanent housing. Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of HPRP, said that the organization tackles the issue of homelessness in two ways. HPRP’s team of lawyers first address the immediate needs of homeless individuals by eliminating legal barriers to obtaining housing or obtaining employment in order to afford housing. HPRP also pushes for legislation at both the county and state levels that works to end homelessness.
High rents make Montgomery County’s homeless problem especially acute, advocates say.
Fasanelli describes different scenarios in which the homeless may require legal representation to obtain housing. Many homeless people have criminal records, no matter how small the infraction, that prevent them from obtaining housing or employment. HPRP works to help those in need to expunge their records to be eligible for housing.
Poor credit is also common among the homeless due to prior evictions or unpaid medical bills, making renting from private landlords extremely difficult. HPRP helps people repair their credit scores, increasing their chances of obtaining housing.
“We absolutely see that people experiencing homelessness tend to receive citations or get arrested for activities related to their homelessness,” Fasanelli said, “that could include urinating in public…or trespassing, when [they’re] trying to find a safe place to sleep. We then provide legal assistance to help expunge those arrests and charges.”
HPRP also works to pass local and state legislation that can alleviate homelessness, including a law that prevents the eviction of domestic violence victims and legislation in Baltimore city that prevents housing discrimination.
HPRP’s new Rockville office was donated by Miles & Stockbridge, a leading Maryland firm. The organization also provides a legal clinic nearby at the Homebuilders Care Assessment Center, a homeless men’s shelter, where lawyers conduct intake of homeless residents every other month and take on their legal cases.
Montgomery County, while the wealthiest jurisdiction in the state, also has the second highest homeless population after Baltimore city, according to Maryland’s Interagency Council on Homelessness’ 2016 Annual Report. Because of this elevated number, HPRP chose to locate its second office in Rockville. According to Point In Time, a study conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Montgomery County had roughly 894 homeless people as of January 2017.
Montgomery County sees an elevated number of homelessness due to the high cost of housing, the same reason for an elevated homeless population in Baltimore city, according to Fasanelli.
“If people cannot earn or receive income that is sufficient to pay the market rent, that’s when [communities] see homelessness,” she said.
The county government has partnered with HPRP to expand resources for the homeless population of Montgomery. Amanda Harris, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services Chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness, said Montgomery faces a specific challenge of chronic homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a chronically homeless individual has a diagnosable disability, lives on the streets, in a safe haven, or in an emergency shelter, and has been homeless continuously for at least 12 months or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years that total at least 12 months.
Montgomery County, led by the Interagency Commission on Homelessness, began an initiative called “Inside (Not Outside)” in May 2017 to end chronic homelessness within the county and provide permanent housing to its entire chronically homeless population. Harris told Maryland Matters that by partnering with HPRP and other community organizations, the county is on track to achieving its goal.
“Through a lot of advocacy and reallocation of resources, and trying to look under every couch cushion for additional funding…we are on track to end chronic homelessness and reach functional zero by March 31, 2018,” she said.
The county has already reached functional zero, meaning zero homeless persons identified, for veterans in 2015 and has since been able to sustain that number.
HPRP plans to continue to expand its services throughout Maryland, with plans to add an intake site for legal cases in Prince George’s County.
According to HPRP’s annual report, in 2016 alone, the organization closed 752 legal cases affecting 1,244 people. More than 400 attorneys, paralegals, and law students volunteered, clocking in 1,255 hours of pro-bono services.
“A core function of our work is to put ourselves out of business,” said Fasanelli. “We see homelessness as a human rights violation and something that a country as advanced as the United States should not have.”