Rights for People Experiencing Homelessness

Each year on December 10th, the world celebrates the anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights by observing Human Rights Day. While much attention is focused internationally on human rights, there are many to be recognized and celebrated here in the United States. And while many people do not think about the rights they enjoy on a regular basis, when you need them most they will be there for you. For people who are homelessness or close to it, the rights afforded to them can be a lifeline to pulling themselves out of a housing crisis. At USICH, we strive to promote opportunities for communities and providers to utilize a human rights approach to homelessness. Liberties, such as the right to keep your family together, be protected under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), go to school, obtain Supplemental and Nutritional Food Assistance (SNAP), vote, and receive mail go a long way towards ending or preventing homelessness. Guaranteeing these and other rights to everyone, including those at risk of or experiencing homelessness, gives people the tools they need to reach their highest potential.

The Right to Family

Staying together has not always been guaranteed for families experiencing homelessness. They are sometimes forced to separate, making a difficult situation even more challenging. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty outlines the issue in its publication Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading: Homelessness in the United States under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stating: “families with adult males are more likely to be excluded than individuals with records of child abuse; one study found that 40 percent of family shelters exclude families because of the presence of adolescent males. Thus, families have a choice of either forgoing shelter all together, or separating fathers and teenage males from other relatives. These separations may last a long time, since families stay in shelters for an average of nearly 6 months.”

While separation may sometimes occur, the right to family is protected under both international and Federal law. According to Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, societies owe protection to the family because it is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” The US government also protects the right of families experiencing homelessness to stay together, prohibiting family separation in shelters with the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009. After the passage of the HEARTH Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now prohibits the involuntary separation of families on the basis of a child’s age, which prevents federally funded family shelters from excluding teenage males and causing family separations. The HEARTH statute and regulations do not extend to homeless shelters that do not receive Federal funding, but the Federal government, through HUD and USICH, encourages all shelters, transitional housing, and permanent housing to not deny assistance to children based on age in order to prevent involuntary family separations. 

Family separation can also occur outside of shelters, when parents and children are separated by court order as a result of child and family services agencies’ findings. Although this may be appropriate in some instances for the safety of the child, research indicates that, when possible, keeping families together is generally better for children, parents, and the community. To that end, the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) recommends providing families with intervention services and support – including housing – in order to keep children with their families in a safer, healthier, more stable home when possible.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, approximately 63 percent of women experiencing homelessness are survivors of domestic or sexual violence. Unfortunately, domestic violence and homelessness go hand in hand.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) notes, “When a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship, she often has nowhere to go … many women and their children are forced to choose between abuse at home and life on the streets.”

In order to help families experiencing a housing crisis due to domestic and/or sexual violence, the US government passed VAWA in 1994. The law provides housing protections for adults who have experienced domestic violence. Specifically, it protects individuals applying for or living in federally subsidized housing from being discriminated against due to the fact that they have experienced domestic violence. On the heels of the legislation’s reauthorization last March, HUD issued a notice providing information on how the reauthorization will apply to HUD programs, and the  National Housing Law Project (NHLP) published a comprehensive manual for advocates titled "Maintaining Safe and Stable Housing for Domestic Violence Survivors: A Manual for Attorneys and Advocates."

States have individually built off VAWA to expand protections. Common State laws include allowing courts to remove the perpetrator of domestic violence from a home regardless of who the legal owner is, protecting the identity of the survivor by making it illegal for a landlord to disclose confidential information without a court order, and providing housing and relocation assistance to survivors and families who are homeless because of their experience with domestic or sexual violence.

While the law goes a long way towards protecting the rights of people experiencing violence, some advocates believe the legislation should be updated to reflect rights afforded by many States. As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states, “the new VAWA provides the best support system to survivors of domestic violence that we have seen up to this date, and even more women will feel they can return to normalcy. That isn’t enough though. Although VAWA was passed, the re-authorization … does not provide the specific protections that State laws do.”

The Right to Education

Children and youth experiencing homelessness face a wide variety of barriers to schooling, resulting in the need for legislation that protects their right to education. During a housing crisis, parents and guardians often move children to emergency housing without taking school needs into account. Enrollment requirements, coupled with high mobility, lack of transportation and school supplies, poor health, fatigue, and hunger create challenges for children in families and unaccompanied youth who wish to attend school.  

In the US, every child experiencing homelessness—defined by the Department of Education (ED) as a child or youth who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence—has access to the same public education as any other student. McKinney-Vento, the primary legislation aimed at educating children and youth in homeless situations, provides a broad mandate for all school districts to remove barriers to enrollment and retention, and requires that districts assign a homeless liaison to link with students in a housing crisis. The law also allows students to stay in their original school if they are forced to move out of the district as a result of homelessness, provides transportation to and from school, gives students the right to enroll in school right away even if all of their paperwork is not available, and provides all students with the right to equal access to school services.  

The Right to Be Free from Hunger

Hunger, poverty and homelessness are inextricably linked. In order to combat hunger in the U.S. and support those emerging from homelessness, the Department of Agriculture implements the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help low-income households pay for food. SNAP’s Food and Nutrition Service works with State agencies, nutrition educators, and neighborhood and faith-based organizations to ensure that those eligible for SNAP have the information needed to apply for the program and can access nutrition assistance.

People experiencing homelessness have the same rights under SNAP as everyone else. In order to ensure that everyone is able to receive the food they need, applicants cannot be denied SNAP based on the fact that they do not have a permanent address. Additionally, SNAP can be used to purchase food at a variety of locations, including grocery stores, restaurants, and even soup kitchens or shelters. Finally, youth experiencing homelessness have the right to apply for SNAP without taking parents’ income into account.

The Right to Vote

While many think of the right to vote as universal in the United States, it is not specifically granted by the Constitution. Whether or not people experiencing homelessness can vote depends on individual State laws. Typically, people can vote as long as they meet their State's requirements. Some States make special provisions for people experiencing homelessness, such as allowing them to use a courthouse address to register to vote. Unfortunately, it is becoming more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to vote as laws in many States are making the act contingent upon proof of identification, citizenship, or residency.

Since 1992, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has worked to guarantee all citizens the right to vote by coordinating civic participation programs through their "You Don't Need a Home to Vote" project.

"It's critically important for people who are experiencing homelessness to make their voices heard on Election Day,” said NCH Executive Director Jerry Jones. “More than practically any other group, they are being failed by current policies. We have to ensure their right to the ballot box."

The Right to General Mail Delivery

The ability to receive mail can improve an individual’s ability to maintain important correspondence that can impact personal stability, such as applying for jobs or services and benefits including SNAP, Medicaid, and Social Security. In the U.S., the absence of a home address does not preclude a person from receiving mail.  The United States Postal Service (USPS) provides delivery to people experiencing homelessness through General Delivery service. General Delivery service is available at designated post offices. Individual pieces of General Delivery mail can be held for up to 30 days. 

Homelessness Should Not Limit Access to Civil and Human Rights

All of these rights can offer a step up to someone experiencing homelessness. But while people experiencing homelessness are afforded the same rights as other citizens of the United States, including the right to family, the right to be protected from domestic and sexual violence, the right to an education, the right to be free from hunger, the right to vote, and the right to receive mail, they still can have their rights violated as a result of their housing situation. Discrimination against Veterans, families, youth, children and people experiencing chronic homelessness occurs on a daily basis, and these protections are necessary to make sure that all men and women, regardless of whether they have a home, are treated equally under the law.