U.N.: U.S. Criminalization of the Homeless Violates International Human Rights Obligations
The United Nations says the criminalization of the homeless in the United States is a clear violation of international human rights standards.
According to the Huffington Post, Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, visited the United States earlier this year at the invitation of the U.S. government. She found that homeless people in the United States face great challenges in finding running water and toilets, and often face criminal and civil charges when they come up with their own solutions to these problems out of sheer necessity.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, safe drinking water and restrooms are considered basic human rights. The U.N. found that U.S. cities are failing to meet these human rights obligations. In this day and age of soaring homeless populations, especially families, a problem exacerbated by the ongoing unemployment and foreclosure crises, more people than ever are at risk of being denied their human rights.
Eric Tars, human rights program director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, says that homelessness is increasingly a problem in areas where it was previously a foreign concept. Suburban communities that often have zero homeless services are now seeing people sleeping in parks or in tent cities, and often these vulnerable populations are targeted by city councils, developers and other business interests. Harsh crackdowns on the homeless are often seen as solutions to the homeless problem in many cities.
“Rather than doing good things like providing more housing, more shelter, more assistance, cities are using these measures to push problems out of view,” Tars told the Huffington Post.
In Gainesville, Florida, one developer even successfully persuaded the city government to ban the distribution of meals to many needy residents.
But when it comes to punishing people for not having roofs over their heads, Los Angeles is frequently cited as the worst city in America. L.A. recently declared war on the poor with its ‘Safer City’ initiative, which the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless cited as one of the main reasons why the City of Angels is the “meanest city” in the nation for its treatment of the homeless.
Under ‘Safer City,’ police citations and arrests of the homeless have soared. While more affluent Angelenos walk from one art gallery to another carrying full wine glasses without so much as a warning from police, officers cite and/or arrest homeless people for drinking in public, flicking cigarette ashes on the sidewalk or even failing to obey street crossing signals. Not only is this inherently unfair, it also harms the already slim chances of the homeless to find jobs, since employers are hesitant to hire anyone with a criminal record, let alone anyone without a home.
Los Angeles public officials say ‘Safer City’ has greatly reduced crime in Skid Row, a 50-block downtown area that is home to some 5,000 of the city’s 40,000 homeless. But critics say the initiative criminalizes the homeless while failing to address the root causes of the problem. According to the University of California, Los Angeles spent $6 million annually to pay for the 50 extra police officers patrolling Skid Row while spending only $5.7 million on homeless services.
New York City, on the other hand, spends $200 million a year on housing and other services for its poorest citizens.
That the U.N. was even allowed to conduct its investigation is at least a start. During the Bush administration, U.N. special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik was denied entry into the United States. She accused the U.S. government of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on bailing out Wall Street and big business while treating the homeless as “invisible.” Rolnik, who completed a four-city tour of America’s homeless in 2009, said it was “shameful” that a country as rich as the United States wasn’t doing more to address and reduce the number of homeless.
“The housing crisis is invisible for many in the U.S.,” Rolnik said. “I learned through this visit that real affordable housing and poverty is something that hasn’t been dealt with as an issue. Even if we talk about the financial crisis and government stepping in in order to promote economic recovery, there is no such help for the homeless. I think those who are suffering the most in this whole situation are the very poor, the low-income population. The burden is disproportionately on them and it’s of course disproportionately on African-Americans, on Latinos and immigrant communities, and on Native Americans.”
Rolnik added that America’s failure to meet the needs of the homeless was all the more shameful because the country certainly possessed the means to do so. “In the US, it’s feasible to provide adequate housing for all. You have a lot of money, a lot of dollars available. You have a lot of expertise. This is a perfect setting to really embrace housing as a human right,” she said. According to the Opportunity Agenda, 75% of Americans agree that housing is a basic human right.
Although the U.S. government does not keep statistics on the nation’s homeless population, the number is certainly in the millions.
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