United Nations Issues Rare Public Warning over Sacramento’s “Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading” Treatment of Homeless
The United Nations has issued an extraordinary public letter to the city of Sacramento, California decrying the “cruel, inhumane and degrading” treatment of its homeless population.
The letter was written by Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, who visited the United States on an official trip last February and March. What she found when she visited a homeless encampment in Sacramento appalled her.
De Albuqueque wrote about Tim, the “sanitation technician” for the homeless camp who hauled 230-pound (104 kg) bags of human waste to a public restroom miles away, “sanitizing” his hands with water and lemon.
“The fact that Tim and others are left to provide such services is unacceptable,” she wrote.
De Albuquerque also slammed the city’s decision to refuse to repair broken water fountains and to install automatic locks on park restroom doors, leaving many homeless residents without access to water or toilets and leaving them vulnerable to arrest for breaking laws against public urination and defecation.
Those functions are basic biological needs, and because “denial of opportunities to do so in a lawful and dignified manner can both compromise human dignity and cause suffering, such denial could, in some cases, amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
“I am concerned,” de Albuquerque wrote, “that the closure of public restrooms and the removal of water resources… have a serious negative impact on homeless individuals’ access to water and sanitation and their health… Many people used the river water, which often caused sickness.”
The U.N. official also decried the “criminalization” of poor people’s survival efforts:
“The criminalization of life-sustaining behaviors of homeless persons in public spaces, such as sleeping, camping or public urination and defecation, in a context of lack of adequate shelter alternatives, has the potential to impede the enjoyment of human rights by poor and vulnerable groups, including the right to an adequate standard of living. The criminalization of public urination and defecation combined with a lack of public toilets leaves the homeless people in a desperate situation without alternatives.”
De Albuquerque then lists a number of applicable international human rights agreements to which the United States is bound but is violating in Sacramento (and elsewhere):
* Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guarantees access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right.
* In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized water and sanitation as a human right. The United States publicly declared that it was “proud to take the significant step of joining consensus,” thus expressing clear recognition of such rights.
* The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has asserted that everyone is entitled to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses, which includes sanitation.
De Albuquerque concludes:
“I call on your government to take the right decision to ensure the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation of the homeless people living in the city of Sacramento, thereby ensuring their life in dignity.”
The letter follows a scathing 2011 U.N. report, also authored by de Albuquerque, that detailed the great hardships faced by U.S. homeless trying to meet their basic biological needs.
Sacramento’s mayor, former NBA star Kevin Johnson, responded to the U.N. letter by saying he shares the world body’s concerns for the plight of his city’s homeless population. “I think the city and the county and us collectively could come together to create a solution and we have not been able to do that,” he said.
According to the Huffington Post, Sacramento is facing a $200 million budget deficit and has slashed public services. The city’s homeless services budget was reduced from $4.37 million in 2010 to $2.56 million this year.
“It’s really a question of priorities and whether this city will decide that meeting the basic biological needs of human beings is more important that some other things in the budget that haven’t been touched,” Steve Watters, executive director of Safe Ground, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by homeless people, told the Huffington Post. Safe Ground was founded in response to a controversial 2009 police raid on a tent city where hundreds of homeless were living.
Indeed, Mayor Johnson has proposed selling the city’s parking spaces to a private company to raise $200 million, which would cover around half of the cost of a new NBA arena that would keep the Kings in Sacramento.
Watters points to a California state law that allows cities and counties to declare states of emergency and utilize public facilities as homeless shelters. That law was passed in 1987; the Huffington Post reports that it has hardly ever been used.
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