Few attorneys are as singularly focused as Antonia Fasanelli, and perhaps even fewer have been able to change other people’s lives through their perseverance and dedication. Fasanelli has been working to end homelessness her entire adult life, which led to her recent appointment as the Executive Director of the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), a position that she will assume in April after serving as the Executive Director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) for more than a decade.
Fasanelli became aware of homelessness at a young age. She grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, when it was impossible to walk around the city without noticing people living on the street. Early on, Fasanelli saw homelessness not just as a moral injustice but also as a legal injustice and human rights violation. She worked at the NHLC for two years after college, and it was there that its founder, Maria Foscarinis, taught her about the federal government’s role in creating the homelessness crisis and the power of law to create real change. Foscarinis is also one of the primary architects of the Stewart B. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that gives rights and provides services to persons experiencing homelessness.
After college, Fasanelli went to law school with the intent of working to stop homelessness. She chose the American University Washington College of Law so that she could learn from Susan Bennett, a professor who had been on the board of NHLC. Fasanelli’s career aspirations were solidified in her first few weeks of law school when she received a key piece of advice from then-Professor Jamie Raskin, addressing students interested in social justice: pick a focus for your work and become an expert in it because lawyers who just want to make the world a better place are a dime a dozen, but lawyers who are experts in a particular area of social justice are few and far between.
After law school, Fasanelli clerked for Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders, Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas before becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by Crowell & Moring at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH). She launched the Affordable Housing Initiative at WLCH and worked there for five years before beginning her role as the Executive Director of HPRP in 2007.
At that time, HPRP was a Baltimore City-based agency with five staff members and 20 volunteer attorneys; it is now a statewide organization with 18 staff members and over 450 volunteer attorneys. Within two months of joining HPRP, Fasanelli began strategic efforts to increase the program. She started by going into the community and asking people experiencing homelessness what they wanted from their lawyers. She used their answers to develop a plan to grow HPRP and determine the direction it would take. While HPRP later adopted a formal strategic planning process, those initial conversations were the foundation for the changes to come. This commitment to a community-based focus has been present since HPRP was founded in the late 1980s, because, as Fasanelli explains, “HPRP belongs to the people.”
HPRP’s extraordinary team aims to serve people experiencing homelessness and housing instability statewide through offices in Baltimore and Montgomery County and in approximately 15 community-based legal clinics located in shelters, soup kitchens, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers, and other locations where they can reach clients. They help people obtain stable housing and critical public benefits like food stamps, veterans’ benefits, and health care.
Perhaps most importantly, HPRP provides community-based legal representation, handling more than 1,000 cases every year. In part, HPRP works to remove barriers to employment and housing by seeking to have the criminal records of homeless people expunged. HPRP was instrumental in establishing the Docket for Homeless Persons in the District Court for Baltimore City to resolve misdemeanor charges and warrants for things that plague people experiencing homelessness, like trespass and public urination, and supported the creation of the Baltimore City Veterans Treatment Court.
HPRP’s approach to legal representation is informed by the advice and suggestions of their clients, as people experiencing homelessness or who have experienced homelessness have always been involved in HPRP and members of the board. The HPRP staff not only provide direct legal representation, but true to the recognition that it is policy change that will end homelessness, they also advocate shoulder to shoulder with their neighbors with lived experience of homelessness.
Fasanelli’s extensive efforts to mold HPRP into an organization that champions the rights of homeless people have not gone unnoticed. In 2017, the American Bar Association selected the HPRP Homeless Youth Initiative as a model program, making it a nationally recognized program. At the time, it was one of only 12 model programs for homeless youth around the country, and the honor is a credit to HPRP’s extraordinary homeless youth initiative team. HPRP also received the Maryland Bar Foundation’s award for advancing the rights of disadvantaged persons in 2014, and other projects, like HPRP’s Veterans Legal Assistance Project and Clean Slate Project, have been replicated by programs around the country.
When she takes the reins at NHLC in April, Fasanelli will focus on housing policy advocacy at the federal level, as she believes the legislature and the powers of the government are the most effective tools in solving the homelessness crisis. Fasanelli believes that homelessness was caused by policy change and will be solved by policy change. In other words, at its most basic level, homelessness is about the failure to provide housing to people who desperately need it in our country, and so the main policy solution is to provide sufficient funding for every person to have a home of their own. President Joe Biden has discussed the concept of a right to housing, but it will take some time to achieve that goal, as over the last 30 years, there has been a major withdrawal of funding for affordable housing from the federal government.
Fasanelli will also be working on locating HPRP-like programs around the country and establishing a network between those organizations that can inform policy change at the federal level. HPRP was created in the late 1980s as part of an ABA effort to open civil legal aid organizations around the country in response to mass homelessness; unlike HPRP, some of those programs have since closed. One of Fasanelli’s undertakings, then, as Executive Director of the NHLC, will be conducting an assessment of what exists and what is needed.
At the NHLC, Fasanelli’s focus on fighting the homelessness crisis will once again be guided by the people she aims to assist. She believes that the voices of persons who have and are experiencing homelessness are the most important voices in the movement to end it. They are the people who are living and breathing this crisis, and it is by supporting their power that we will truly see change.