11/27/2012 - Homelessness and Human Rights

On November 6, 2012, USICH joined other Federal partners (including representatives from the Department of Justice, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and State) and local advocates for a meeting convened by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and Magdelena Sepúlveda, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.  Ms. Sepulveda has been representing the UN as Special Rapporteur since 2008 and travels the world bringing attention to the rights of people living with poverty.  The meeting focused on two recent UN reports, adopted by consensus (including the United States):  the first, adopting the new UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, the second, a report by the Rapporteur on the access to justice for persons living in extreme poverty. Ms. Sepúlveda comes originally from Chile and has studied in the Netherlands and in the U.K. and has worked at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations-mandated University of Peace.  The Special Rapporteur pointed out that the lack of housing can be seen as a violation of human rights.  In addition to housing, the UN resolution reiterates that all people have a right to justice, including representation in civil matters where basic human rights, such as the right to housing, are at stake.  USICH was praised for its position on human rights as documented in the report, Searching out Solutions, Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness, which recognizes that criminalization of homelessness may not only violate constitutional rights, but also the U.S.’s human rights treaty obligations.

The dialogue was part of an ongoing conversation between the USICH and other agencies at the international level.  In 2010, all the agencies participated in the Universal Periodic Review before the U.N. Human Rights Council, during which HUD for the first time recognized homelessness as a human rights concern.  In 2011, USICH in its first year follow up report to the federal strategic plan to end homelessness echoed this recognition. This year, the Searching Out Solutions report received praise not only in the reports noted above, but in a joint press release from three Special Rapporteurs, as a model that could “not only assist the US Government in complying with its international human rights obligations, but also in addressing the root causes of homelessness.”

November 6 was an historic day which ended with President Obama being re-elected for a second term as president.  Advocates emphasized that the Guiding Principles and Access to Justice report could and should be used as a normative foundation on which to construct a social and economic platform for the second term with the human rights of all people, especially those living in poverty, as its baseline.  In addition to the presidential contest, the discussion focused on the fact that there have been a number of local measures across the country that penalize individuals who sit or lie on the sidewalks in commercial areas.  While these laws apply to anyone who sits or lies on the sidewalk, the group pointed out that these laws could be seen as criminalizing homelessness.  Even in Berkeley California there was this type of “Sit/Lie” measure on the ballot (which at the end of the day did not pass).The meeting ended with a commitment from the participants to attend to domestic violations of human rights, to disseminate the Guiding Principles and Access to Justice recommendations, and to continue to fight so that all people living in poverty can have a home, have access to justice and legal representation, and to continue with the goal to end homelessness in the US.   

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