USICH Blog

12/12/2013 - I Believe in Human Rights: A Viewpoint from Europe

By Freek Spinnewijn, Director of FEANTSA 

I believe in human rights. I even believe in human rights for people experiencing homelessness. This has to be said, because in many countries, States, and cities, the human rights of people experiencing homelessness are at worst violated, and most often ignored.  

FEANTSA is a network of homeless service providers across Europe. Our members help people experiencing homelessness access housing, employment, and health services. They also advocate for people experiencing homelessness to have access to their human rights.  

What do we mean when we talk about human rights and homelessness?
Access to housing is a fundamental right, and it is a precondition for enjoying other human rights. It is difficult, if not impossible to access and enjoy other human rights including the right to health, the right to family and private life, the right to live in dignity, if you are experiencing homelessness.

In some countries, like Scotland and France, a right to housing underlies homelessness and housing policy. In these countries, local municipalities or regional authorities have a duty to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have access to affordable housing that suits their needs.  In other European countries, our members and partners—for example members of our Housing Rights Watch network and our Expert Group on Housing Rights—work to raise awareness about human rights through research and strategic litigation projects.

As Europe continues to struggle through this economic recession and the crippling austerity measures that most European governments have imposed, more and more families and individuals find themselves unable to make ends meet. Some families are being forced into homelessness through evictions due to rent or even mortgage errors. For more information please see our report On The Way Home

Recently, FEANTSA started working on the issue of criminalization of homelessness. This year we published Mean Streets, our first-ever report on the criminalization of homelessness in Europe.

Criminalizing homelessness is, at its core, a violation of human rights. Cities, regions and even some countries (Hungary, for example) are using the criminal and administrative justice systems to make people experiencing homelessness invisible. Legislation that criminalizes homelessness includes measures such as: 

  • Making it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces
  • Ordinances that punish people for begging in order to move people who are poor or experiencing homelessness out of a city or area 
  • Measures that ban or limit food distribution in public areas to curb congregation of individuals who are homeless
  • Sweeps of areas in which people who are homeless are living in order to drive them out
  • Selective enforcement of neutral laws, for example jaywalking, loitering, public consumption of alcohol against people who are homeless
  • Public health ordinances related to public activities and hygiene (e.g. public urination) regardless of whether public facilities are available
  • Prohibition of removing items from garbage or recycling bins

Homelessness is not being explicitly criminalized in most of Europe, but changes in social policy, policing, and controlling of public order and safety are making it more and more difficult for people experiencing homelessness, particularly in times of economic crisis.

Defending human rights might look different in Europe than in the USA, but we are able to rely on strong international human rights mechanisms. We have a European Convention of Human Rights and a European Social Charter, as well as UN conventions.  These international tools can be made relevant and useful at both the local and national levels. That’s why we are working with experts, activists, social workers, and policy makers to ensure that the human rights are not violated, or forgotten.

More information on our work on human rights is available here.

An executive summary of Mean Streets is available here

For more from USICH's human rights series, visit http://usich.gov/issue/human-rights/

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