10/11/2012 - Homelessness, stigma, and human rights

“I’m ashamed because the other kids say I smell bad.”

“Get those dirty bums out of our town.”

How many times have you heard sentiments similar to these, either from those experiencing homelessness, or from those encountering them on the streets? As advocates for the rights and dignity of homeless persons, we know these statements reflecting the stigmatization of homelessness are wrong, but few of us have thought more deeply about the causes and consequences of stigma.

A new report from the top U.N. expert on the human right to water and sanitation addresses this lack of a framework for discussing stigmatization, its roots, and its effects. The report states:

People living in poverty face a range of barriers in accessing water and sanitation services, including a perception that they are to be blamed for their poverty and do not deserve adequate services. Homeless people and street children are frequently blamed for their homelessness, and labeled as “mentally deficient”, “criminals” or “addicts”. Children living in dilapidated surroundings—without a social safety net, and without access to safe water and sanitation—may see those surroundings as a reflection of their own self-worth, hence growing up with low self-esteem and embarrassment. Slums and informal settlements are often not taken into account in urban planning. People living in slums are often simply absent from official records and urban plans; there is a perception that “they do not count”, once again highlighting the dehumanizing nature of stigma.

Excluding people from water and sanitation facilities creates a vicious circle of further entrenching stigmatization. For instance, not providing homeless persons with the opportunity to use public facilities forces them to resort to urinating and defecating in public, without being afforded any privacy. In being so exposed, people are stigmatized even further.

This report, adopted last month by the U.N. Human Rights Council, was drafted by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, Catarina du Albuquerque, following a global consultation with directly-affected victims of stigmatization and other advocates and experts, including our staff here at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Among other information, we shared the USICH report on alternatives to criminalization of homelessness, which the Rapporteur cited in her report as a best practice:

Evaluating existing laws and assessing their potential discriminatory and stigmatizing impact in the water and sanitation domains is equally important. The stigmatization of homeless communities, for instance, is often reinforced through legislation that criminalizes certain proxy behaviors. Such laws do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness and must be replaced by policies that aim at guaranteeing adequate housing to marginalized individuals and families. A report by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, based on information gathered at a summit convened by the council and the United States Department of Justice, condemns the criminalization of homelessness and suggests alternatives that are grounded in community engagement and aimed at overcoming barriers to housing by directly working with the homeless. Building on the recognition that criminalization does not provide any real solutions, all levels of government must put into practice effective alternative approaches.

The report contains numerous other references to homelessness and poverty, and reinforces messages from the Rapporteur’s report on her mission to the U.S. in 2010. This includes legally significant comments about the content of the right to water and sanitation, and related rights, such as the inclusion of homelessness as a protected class from discrimination, and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

For organizations and communities struggling with stigmatization of, and discrimination against, homeless persons, the Rapporteur’s report should be required reading. In an area all too often either brushed aside or tacitly avoided, by explicitly addressing issues of access to water and sanitation and stigma itself, the report provides an affirmative, human rights based framework for addressing these critical problems.

For example, while immediate measures to address the water and sanitation needs of homeless people are essential, ultimately the best way to avoid stigmatization and specific planning for access to water and sanitation for homeless individuals is to ensure adequate housing is available to all. The looming 8% cuts to HUD and other federal agencies budgets under the budget sequestration agreement would clearly be a step in the wrong direction on both those fronts. The fact that these cuts are proposed is as much a consequence of the stigmatization of poor and marginalized populations as it is of our debt problems. As advocates, we need to ensure the message about the impact of these cuts on people’s basic human rights is front and center in the upcoming debate about deficit reduction, and work to increase resources to ensure these rights are met.

The Law Center is proud to have participated in the creation of this report, and we look forward to working with the USICH and local, state, and national groups to implement its findings and recommendations.

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