Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal) is committed to meaningfully addressing the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis.
BayLegal provides free civil legal services to low-income individuals and families who are unstably housed or at risk of homelessness in order to prevent homelessness and increase housing stability. BayLegal also helps unhoused youth and adults address legal barriers that prevent them from exiting homelessness. We use a mix of strategies, including direct legal services, coalition building and partnerships, policy advocacy, and litigation to advocate for systems change that will help people maintain housing, exit homelessness, and protect unhoused persons’ civil rights.
In response to the complex barriers and inequities contributing to homelessness, BayLegal has developed an internal Homelessness Task Force (HTF). The HTF strives to build capacity and develop best practices across BayLegal’s seven county offices in order to enhance our coordinated, multi-systems response to homelessness on local and regional levels. The HTF supports BayLegal staff in continuously improving the effectiveness of client services and enhancing our community efforts to address homelessness.
The need for a coordinated, effective response to homelessness in our state and region is clear. California is home to 27% of all people experiencing homelessness in the United States, 72% of whom were unsheltered. Over the last decade, homelessness in California increased by 22%, and it increased by over 16% from 2018 to 2019 alone. “By virtually every measure, the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis ranks among the worst in the United States.” According to Point-in-Time counts, the Bay Area has the third largest population of people experiencing homelessness in the country, and it also shelters a smaller proportion of its unhoused residents than all other metropolitan areas in the United States besides Los Angeles. According to a recent report “formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public — in California, 70% of people experiencing homelessness have a history of incarceration.”
We also know that the urgency of the need for more comprehensive, coordinated strategies to prevent and alleviate homelessness is linked to the urgency of long-delayed reckonings with racial injustice. Homelessness disproportionately affects people of color and is a racial justice issue. Black people comprise 6.5% of California’s overall population but represent 40% of the state’s unhoused residents. In order to meaningfully address the underlying causes of homelessness, we must acknowledge the racist economic, housing, and law enforcement policies that have historically led to housing instability and economic insecurity among communities of color. Dismantling these racist policies and systems is necessary to addressing, preventing, and ultimately eliminating homelessness. BayLegal works in partnership with our clients, local communities, and other community-based organizations to challenge policies and systems that promote and reinforce racial disparities and to seek equitable remedies for our clients.
Impactful BayLegal Highlights
BayLegal’s homelessness-focused work includes individual client advocacy, systems advocacy, and impact litigation.
Social Work Team: BayLegal uses a holistic approach that combines legal services and social work. Our social workers are embedded within our Youth Justice, Housing and SSI Advocacy teams, and engage with unhoused clients and clients facing eviction to help them connect to housing, income supports, community resources, education supports, foster care, and health care. Social workers also provide a supportive anchor and emotional support to clients during the life of their legal case.
Housing: Our housing team works with clients to preserve and increase housing stability. We represent tenants in eviction cases to keep them in their homes and engage in local and statewide policy advocacy to strengthen protections for tenants and preserve/expand affordable housing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our attorneys successfully advocated to implement and extend state and local moratoria on evictions to keep people housed. BayLegal attorneys also help people fight barriers to housing, such as discrimination based on disability or race, and barriers to housing due to criminal records or poor credit.
Domestic Violence: Between 22 and 57 percent of all women experiencing homelessness identify domestic violence as the immediate cause of homelessness. We provide a range of legal services (e.g. family law, immigration, public benefits, housing) to survivors of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, and trafficking, empowering them to be able to live safely and independently from their abusers.
Public Benefits: Our economic justice attorneys help low-income individuals and families to qualify and maintain eligibility for essential safety net benefits, including General Assistance, CalWORKs (including homeless assistance), CalFresh, and benefit programs for veterans and immigrants. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we helped unhoused people access their economic impact payments, have been holding clinics at COVID shelters, and providing technical assistance to community-based organizations about the federal stimulus payments. We also successfully advocated for unhoused individuals to receive increased General Assistance grants (ensuring the housing portion of the grant was made available to them), during the pandemic when shelter was not available. We advocated with Bay Area county welfare departments and the California Department of Social Services for increased access to safety net benefits programs during the pandemic and the suspension of onerous program rules.
Disability Benefits Advocacy: Our SSI advocacy team helps clients to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, Supplemental Security Income, and CAPI. We work with community partners, including behavioral health and homeless services providers, to meet with clients where they are, including in psychiatric facilities, county jail, encampments and COVID shelters, and to help them complete applications and appeals, and represent clients at all stages of the process through federal court. SSI advocacy has been shown to increase housing stability and to reduce recidivism, hospitalizations, psychiatric emergencies and homelessness. A February 2021 report, “Reducing Homelessness for People with Behavioral Health Needs Leaving Prisons and Jails” recommended Alameda County’s SSI/Social Security pre-release application and advocacy program as a model. During the pandemic, our team advocated with the Social Security Administration to increase access to SSA programs and services for vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness, and for increased funding for the state Housing & Disability Advocacy Program.
Youth Justice: Our youth justice team helps unhoused system-involved and non-system involved youth access benefits, services, and housing supports necessary for safety and stability. We work closely with youth homeless shelters, and conduct on-site intakes at locations where youth facing homelessness spend time. We advocate for increased youth access to transitional housing programs; produced a report that identifies and shares best practices for supporting unhoused youth; co-created a Homeless Youth Handbook and a guide to help counties ensure housing stability and to maximize participation in THP-Plus (transitional housing for young adults who have exited the foster care system); and successfully advocated for youth not to be exited from subsidized and transitional housing programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reentry Legal Services/Barriers: Our re-entry team works with clients who are on probation or parole to help resolve civil legal barriers to employment and to living independently, including drivers’ license and vocational license restoration, relief from court debt, and expungement of criminal records. We advocate on behalf of clients in homeless courts throughout the Bay Area and for best practices for convening an effective and equitable homeless court system statewide, which can alleviate the disproportionate burden of traffic enforcement on low-income and unhoused individuals and communities of color.
Medical-Legal Partnerships: Our medical-legal partnerships with healthcare providers provide coordinated access to civil legal services to address social determinants of health. We are launching an MLP to provide wrap-around civil legal services to unhoused survivors of intimate partner violence who are in homeless encampments and COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place hotels in Alameda County, a partnership with Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless. We also partner with VA service providers to ensure access to civil legal services for veterans and their families who are experiencing homelessness.
Health Access: Our Health Consumer Center attorneys help low-income people, including those experiencing homelessness, access medical care and avoid medical debt, which can lead to or further exacerbate homelessness. We help individuals to qualify for In-Home Support Services and Protective Supervision so they can remain safely in their homes.
Consumer Rights: Our consumer law team helps individuals living in poverty and the working poor to get relief from consumer debt, and student loan debt, allowing them to more easily pay their rent, prevent foreclosures, and remain housed. We successfully advocated for a statewide pause on consumer debt collection activities and foreclosures during COVID-19 and for the Governor’s Executive Order barring debt collectors from seizing COVID-19 pandemic relief payments.
Immigration: Our immigration law practice provides comprehensive legal services to immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in collaboration with community partners to ensure the safety and wellbeing for our clients and their children so that they can live independently. We have opposed more expansive redefinitions of “public charge” and engaged in comprehensive outreach to dispel public charge fears and encourage families impacted by the pandemic to access health and financial programs for which they were eligible.
Encourage SF to Issue Free Transit Pass: BayLegal’s work with the Financial Justice Project, SFMTA and other partners resulted in the SFMTA issuing Access Passes to people experiencing homelessness so they could access MUNI. The Access Pass is a low barrier, free San Francisco transit pass for people experiencing homelessness, enabling unhoused people to ride transit without risking a citation for fare evasion and removal from transit. If someone qualifies for the Pass, all past citations for fare evasion will be waived.
Litigate to Enforce Affordable Housing Requirements: BayLegal enforced the California Surplus Land Act, on behalf of low-income state residents and communities of color. The California Court of Appeal upheld the enforceability of an affordable housing law against charter cities, meaning that such jurisdictions must give affordable housing developers the first opportunity to purchase surplus public land under California’s Surplus Land Act. We believe this will increase the rate of construction for affordable housing across the state, by increasing the availability of sites.
Challenge Towing Policies Impacting People Living in their Vehicles: BayLegal has engaged in advocacy to alleviate debt burdens for people living in their vehicles. BayLegal’s advocacy for an end to predatory towing practices that disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color is elucidated in this report which we co-authored: https://baylegal.org/towed-into-debt-major-new-report-shows-how-ineffective-towing-practices-in-ca-unfairly-harm-low-income-drivers/. We brought litigation challenging San Francisco towing practices that discriminate against people who live in their vehicles: https://baylegal.org/lawsuit-san-franciscos-illegal-towing. Our advocacy helped bring about a halt to inequitable towing practices that disproportionately impacted unhoused people in San Francisco during the COVID-19 pandemic. BayLegal has also helped bring about improvements in traffic court practices that burden those who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets and fees.
Advocate in CA Budget Process for Homelessness Resources: BayLegal staff frequently provide input in the state legislative and budget processes to improve safety net and homelessness programs. This past year we gave public comment with our partners, helping bring about significant investments in homeless services funding, including expansion of the Housing & Disability Advocacy Program (HDAP) to assist disabled individuals who are experiencing homelessness to access case management services, benefits advocacy and housing. We also advocated for other budget wins that will help prevent homelessness, including tenant assistance with pandemic rent arrears, CalWORKs grant increases for families, increases in the state supplementary payment for SSI recipients, and increases in legal services funding.
Intervene in Lawsuit for Unhoused People’s Rights in Tenderloin: BayLegal intervened, along with partner organizations, on behalf of unhoused persons and people with disabilities, in a lawsuit through which UC Hastings and other plaintiffs sought to force the City and County of San Francisco (“City”) to remove unhoused people who were living in tents from the City’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Intervention sought to protect the rights and assert the interests of unhoused people, who were the subject of the lawsuit.
Advocate for People Experiencing Homelessness during Pandemic: BayLegal advocated during the pandemic for the due process rights of unhoused individuals, including a moratorium on sweeps of unhoused persons during the COVID-19 pandemic in compliance with CDC guidelines regarding unsheltered individuals, and for increased access to housing coordinated entry programs.
Advocate in Oakland on Encampment Policies: BayLegal attorneys commented on the City of Oakland’s proposed “Homeless Encampment Management Policy” as potentially resulting in unconstitutional seizures of property and denial of due process rights; increasing criminalization of homelessness through greater policing, which would disproportionately harm communities of color; and uprooting unhoused individuals from their community supports and burdening their ability to access essential services, especially during a pandemic.