USICH Blog

12/30/2013 - I Believe in Human Rights: A Pressing Problem

When I was homeless, I had to think about things strategically. I did not want to sleep too far away from the soup kitchens, or the day labor pick up point, or the bathrooms.

With so many bathrooms closed to people experiencing homelessness, the park bathrooms were the most viable, as well as the one at Bay Walk, which is sort of an open air mall in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

My motivation for wanting to sleep around bathrooms—except for the obvious reasons—was that I was still trying to piece together a culinary career and it was important to keep my uniforms and myself clean. When I got a cooking job through day labor, I would wash my jackets and myself so I could be presentable the next day. The goal was not to look homeless, because it is difficult for a homeless man to find work. When nature called at night, I was either across the street from the park bathroom, or a block away from Bay Walk.

The only problem was that the park bathroom closed at nine and opened at seven, the Bay Walk bathroom closed at twelve, and people experiencing homelessness could not use it in the day light hours for fear of being run off by security, or arrested for trespassing.

I used to sleep in a church courtyard across the street from the park. It was not hidden, but it was secluded. I was safe there and no one disturbed me.

One day the police made me move. Not for any particular reason, the officer said, but for the public good. He told me that he would arrest me if he saw me sleeping there again.

I moved in front of Saint Petersburg City Hall.

Sixty to seventy five people slept in front of City Hall. Some slept there because they were either kicked out of shelters or did not want to be in shelters. Some slept there because they were sex offenders who were not qualified for shelters. Everyone slept there because of homelessness.

Bathrooms and running water became an immediate problem. Though the city employees stepped over the homeless problem everyday on their way to work, the city demonized people who were homeless, and woke them in the pre-dawn hours by hosing off the steps and spraying sanitary chemicals on the sidewalks connected to City Hall.

The City of Saint Petersburg did not provide bathrooms for the residents who slept at the steps of City Hall. The City at that time was trying to arrest its way out of the homeless problem.

People who woke up in the morning, and felt the natural obligation to relieve themselves were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The situation became so dire for that in 2009, Southern Legal Counsel, a public interest law firm in Gainesville, Florida, filed a class action complaint on behalf of the city’s homeless population, “who were routinely penalized for using public space to perform basic bodily functions when they had nowhere else to go.”

Article 7 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights declares, “Criminalization of basic bodily functions when people have no other space to perform them can constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

The phenomena of municipalities attempting to rid themselves of their homeless problem  by denying access to restroom facilities has not changed in the years since I successfully got out of homelessness. Last year, Clearwater, St Petersburg’s neighbor, welded the park and public bathrooms shut, denying access to restroom facilities, in violation of the United Nation Human Rights Declaration.

As a society, America must make human rights our guiding principal in any homeless “solution.” Housing must be the number one priority. The human rights of all citizens must be protected, regardless of their socio-economic status. For the public good.  

Kirsten Clanton and Lynette Daniels of Southern Legal Counsel contributed to this article.

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

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