Poverty Warriors: Professor Sara Rankin and her students work to end homelessness

(This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Fall 2018.)

Tent city at Seattle Pacific University

"We are all stained by what I call the influence of exile - deeply ingrained class and status distinctions that guide us, even subconsciously, to act and enforce laws that restrict the visibility of poverty, of poor people, in public space."
– Professor Sara Rankin

When Professor Sara Rankin spoke those words at the Real Change Annual Breakfast in the fall of 2016, Seattle was almost a year into a mayor-declared "state of emergency" on homelessness. More than 10,000 people in King County were sleeping outside, in cars, in homeless shelters, or in encampments, most of them in Seattle, according to an annual one-night count.

Now, that number is even higher — upwards of 12,000 — and the tragedy of homelessness has only gotten worse. Some members of the King County Board of Health are calling it a "public health disaster."

Seattle University School of Law students are diving into the region's most urgent challenge with legal analysis, critical thinking, and impassioned advocacy. The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP), founded by Rankin in 2014, has become a trusted and influential resource for regional and even national policymakers.

"I often say that having the legal community now available has been a 'game changer' for many of us, like me, who have been doing this [work] for a decade and a half," said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness. "What a gift."

Sara Rankin & Justin OlsonIn the past three years, Seattle U law students have published 16 reports on homelessness, analyzing a diverse array of topics, from zoning laws to encampments. The reports have been widely promoted to city officials and legislators across Washington and beyond, along with a condensed summary of 12 actions cities can take to stop the spread of homelessness. 

"The reports widen the view that legislators have, which is too often solely informed by what they get from the media," Kirlin-Hackett said. His task force, like many other community partners across the country, helps HRAP identify areas of concern for the law students to research.

Rankin has also organized multiple events, including a poverty law workshop in 2016 and a land use forum in 2018, which gathered well over 100 lawyers, political staff members, activists, and people experiencing homelessness from around the region and across the country. She and some of her students also spoke at the 2018 National Forum on the Human Right to Housing in Washington, D.C., in June. Rankin, her students, and HRAP's work are increasingly appearing in media coverage of homelessness.

Building a coalition

Most recently, she co-founded Third Door Coalition, a nonpartisan civic alliance of business leaders and service providers working to find solutions to chronic homelessness. The coalition emerged in the wake of a contentious and highly polarized debate about imposing a new tax on Seattle's largest employers to fund homelessness solutions. The tax proposal was repealed, but the animosity lingered.

"Many in Seattle feel forced into one corner or another: you were either for the tax or against it. You either care about helping vulnerable people or you don't. You're either for economic growth or against it," Rankin said. "But there is a third door: homelessness is solvable if we work together, find common ground, and focus on evidence-based practices."

Ultimately, how can lawyers — and law students — help end homelessness? They start by calling attention to laws that exacerbate the problem.

"As a lawyer, I'm particularly intrigued by how we express our fears and our impulses in our laws and policies," Rankin said, explaining that the same laws that make some people feel safe — laws against loitering and panhandling, for example — can harm the most vulnerable populations.

A simple ticket for a civil infraction like begging, for example, imposes a fine that a homeless person can't pay or a mandated court appearance that they can't make. Legal consequences for not paying, or not appearing in court, then cause that simple ticket to quickly escalate into a misdemeanor. With a criminal record, a person in need has a much harder time accessing food, shelter, and social services.

"Criminalization makes people more resistant to recovery, more likely to become sick, more likely to self-medicate, more likely to become incarcerated, and even more likely to die," she said.

Before they've even graduated, HRAP students have been trained and encouraged to serve as leading advocates for better policies and protections for visibly poor people. Rankin calls the students "poverty warriors."

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) reports that anti-homelessness laws have increased dramatically in the last 10 years across the country. Bans on panhandling, loitering, and sleeping in vehicles are up 31, 88, and 143 percent, respectively.

Invest in solutions

Breanne Schuster '15 has been fighting laws like this for several years now, first as an HRAP student and now as a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. Her advocacy helped to defeat unconstitutional ordinances in the town of Burien, where city officials had gained notoriety for wanting to ticket people with offensive body odor in public.

The ACLU continues to oppose a range of unconstitutional policies and practices targeting the homeless in Burien and elsewhere. HRAP'S work has been vital to supporting the ACLU and other legal aid organizations.

"The optimist in me thinks it's possible to eliminate homelessness if we invest in solutions rather than continuing to punish people for their particular situation," Schuster said. "In the interim, I would love to see us change the narrative about homelessness. We have to remember that people are people. And they have the same rights as people living in brick and mortar homes."

Justin Olson '15 was in the first cohort of HRAP students, along with Schuster, and now works for a law firm. For him, the work was so meaningful that he returns as a volunteer and mentor, helping current students with their reports. He's motivated by the opportunity to serve people who others want to ignore.

"This is an incredibly underrepresented population. You'll find advocates for almost every issue out there, but homeless advocacy doesn't get a lot of traction or support or funding," he said. "So there was this big void that didn't make sense to me. Why had no one done this before? As law students, we had the opportunity, the resources, the time, and the skill set to do that."

Olson has co-authored or edited several HRAP reports, including a 2016 report about vehicle residency - "Living at the Intersection" - that inspired advocacy efforts on behalf of vehicle residents. The advocacy eventually resulted in a high-profile court victory this spring. Alison Bilow, staff attorney for the Basic Human Needs Project at Columbia Legal Services, cited the report in City of Seattle v. Steven Long, successfully arguing that her client's truck was his home and he was therefore entitled to certain protections against impoundment.

"The reports by Professor Rankin and HRAP have been an incredibly important tool and resource for this work," Bilow said.

While it's rewarding to see victories in the courtroom, HRAP students said the program has also been tremendously valuable to their legal education. Each year, the students take a class in homeless rights law for credit, and then the team functions like a small law firm, collaborating on reports with each other, giving and receiving feedback, gathering data, honing their writing skills, and following the extraordinary lead set by Rankin.

"Her energy is infectious," Olson said.

"Professor Rankin's passion is apparent, and she sets high expectations for her students," said 3L Evanie Parr. "It's more than you think you can do. My paper, when it was done, was 55 pages and more than 250 footnotes. I did not think I was capable of that as a second-year law student. She clearly has a vision for how the reports are going to be used and what has to happen in order for them to be effective."

A model for law schools

Professor Nantiya Ruan of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law was inspired by Rankin to create a homeless advocacy program at her own law school. Rankin helped Ruan replicate a program similar to HRAP at Denver.  In fact, Seattle and Denver students collaborated on one of the latest HRAP research papers about accessory dwelling units (tiny houses in residential backyards). The law school at University of California, Berkeley, also created a program similar to HRAP; Rankin assists other law schools throughout the country in joining such work.

Sara Rankin, Evanie Parr, Jocelyn Tillisch"Law school tends to be litigation-focused, and this was a chance for students to get experience with policy," Ruan said. "They have to learn how to work with business interests as well as legislators. They learn how to use the media as a tool for communications. These skills aren't usually taught in law school."

For 3L Jocelyn Tillisch, who joined Parr and Rankin at the NLCHP forum on homelessness in Washington, D.C., this summer, working to defend homeless individuals' rights is what coming to law school was all about. 

"I'm from a small town in eastern Canada, and I hadn't seen a person experiencing homelessness until I was 13 or 14. Then I came to Seattle and it's so visible here," she said.

"I was the type of person who would cross the street if I saw somebody begging because I felt so uncomfortable. But I believe that part of my job in law school is to challenge myself. This class did that."

Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for NLCHP, helped organize the D.C. forum and was encouraged to see law students stepping up to the plate. 

"Lawyers play a really important role in ensuring that people have their basic rights protected," she said, adding that she hopes the HRAP effort is duplicated at law schools around the country. "There are not nearly enough Sara Rankins in the world, not nearly enough Seattle Universities." 

Bauman praised HRAP, and Rankin in particular, for collaborating closely with service providers and people experiencing homelessness to make sure the students' policy and advocacy work reflected real needs.

"Sara really understands person-centered policy and advocacy approaches," she said. "Homeless people and organizers are included and she centers the conversation around what actually works for real people. She's somebody who gets it."

Lawyers are trained communicators, Parr said, and they have the ability to make a connection between those real people — people sleeping on the streets, in their cars, or in crowded shelters — and people with wealth and power. Parr served as development coordinator for Real Change before coming to law school. In fact, the 2016 breakfast event at which Professor Rankin gave the keynote address was the last event she organized before becoming a full-time law student.

In her report, Parr examined homeless encampments hosted at authorized locations, such as college campuses, and the zoning, contract and liability laws, among others, which made such encampments possible. Beyond the legal details, though, she saw that the encampments gave young college students a chance to learn more directly about poverty, and change their perceptions of visibly poor people.

"Lawyers have a translator role. I had a summer internship helping people get their public benefits, and I learned that sometimes it's just a matter of having someone who can talk to people on either end, to understand how this other person needs to hear it," she said.

Ending homelessness

This civil and inclusive dialogue, a hallmark of Jesuit education, gives Rankin hope that the new Third Door Coalition will be able to develop a real and meaningful plan to find shelter for all chronically homeless people in King County within five years. Seattle University hosts meetings of the coalition, which includes business leaders, researchers, and service providers.

Kirlin-Hackett is also hopeful. "Sara's advocacy brings — and this may sound odd — 'status,' which is necessary in addressing leaders who feel somehow that they can only learn from experts of equal status," he said. 

The coalition will focus on "housing first" solutions, which provide permanent supportive housing for people without any strings attached. "This is consistently shown to be the most cost-effective means of ending chronic homelessness," Rankin said.

In the meantime, the work of HRAP continues, as lawyers and law students continue to serve this neglected population.

"Compassion is key," Tillisch said. "People experiencing homelessness are human. We have to start with compassion and maybe just a little bit of self-reflection."