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Healthy and Affordable Housing

Homelessness and the Public’s Health: Legal Responses ̶ Q&A

May 11, 2017


Many experts and advocates consider homelessness a critical public health issue. Professor James G. Hodge, Jr., director of the Network’s Western Region Office, co-authored the article “Homelessness and the Public’s Health: Legal Responses” in the recently released Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics supplemental issue. In this Q&A, he discusses his article and the role of law and advocacy to ameliorate the public health impact of homelessness.

The recently released Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics supplemental issue features articles authored by presenters at the Public Health Law Conference in Washington, D.C. Professor James G. Hodge, Jr., director at the Network for Public Health Law – Western Region, co-authored the article, “Homelessness and the Public’s Health: Legal Responses”.

In the following Q&A, James discusses the article and how it addresses a critical public health issue.

Q: Why is this topic so critical right now?

Despite years of legal and policy interventions offering short- and long-term solutions, over half a million people are homeless each and every night in the U.S., and the trend is only likely to worsen if this issue is not addressed at the federal, state and local levels. Homeless persons and families face substantial nutritional, public health, health care, and housing challenges. Sadly, they are also often victims of targeted efforts to criminalize life-sustaining activities in public spaces, which only further exacerbates their problems.

Q: How does your article address this issue and its challenges?

We initially frame public health issues for homeless individuals and the community and then assess a slate of related law, policy, and advocacy options. Major topics include access to basic health services through state-based Medicaid programs (subject to potential cuts depending on Congressional ACA reforms), deficits in housing availability, criminalization of homelessness, and use of emergency declarations to address specific homelessness issues in select states and localities.

Q: How do current policy solutions address this issue?

Prior policy and practical approaches to homelessness were legally suspect, if not outright discriminatory.  However, these dated approaches and attitudes are giving way to new and innovative legal approaches. Options include opportunities to expand health care and housing access, divert affected persons from criminalization, and address homelessness through emergency declarations that mobilize resources and garner attention. Working together, public and private sectors are improving the plight of homeless persons in their communities in furtherance of the public’s health and with respect for individual rights.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

The roles of law related to improving the lives of homeless individuals and groups in society can be profound, but awareness of these options is key.  Too often legally-sound solutions to aid the homeless fall down the list of essential government and private sector priorities, much like homeless persons in the eyes of some Americans.  Yet, these legal techniques present viable, often cost-efficient routes to assisting persons often most in need. Not everyone can assist homeless individuals through their individual contributions, but anyone can be in support of legal tools enabling assistance where it is needed most.

Network attorneys are available to answer questions on public health legal and policy issues at no cost to you, and can assist you in using law to advance your public health initiatives. Visit the Network’s website for a list of Network attorneys in your area.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.