Entitlements? Or Human Rights? Or Criminalization?

Posted December 11th, 2012 @ 8:15 AM by

Yesterday was Human Rights Day and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty issued a report card on the Human Right to Housing – we didn’t do well.

Safe, decent, affordable housing is a basic human right, recognized globally and defined with specificity in international law. But while the U.S. was a leader in establishing and championing international human rights law and institutions over 60 years ago, and continues to speak out as a leader on the global stage, unfortunately here at home our words do not match our reality.

(full blog article here)

Security of Tenure
Renters 2011 B- 2012C
Homeowners 2011 D+ 2012 D
Access to Counsel 2011 D 2012 F

Emergency & Dire Circumstances
Criminalization of Homelessness 2011 F 2012 D
Domestic Violence 2011 B- 2012 C
Availability of Services, Materials & Infrastructure 2011 D 2012 D
Affordability 2011 D 2012 D
Accessibility 2011 C- 2012 C
Habitability 2011 C- 2012 C
Location 2011 D 2012 D
Cultural Adequacy 2011 D 2012 D
Overall 2011 D+ 2012 D

(the full report is here)


In 2012, the United States continues to face a housing crisis of proportions not seen since the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt lamented in his Second Inaugural Address that he saw “one third of our nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.”

Prior to the foreclosure crisis and economic recession, homelessness was already a national crisis, with 2.5 to 3.5 million men, women and children experiencing homelessness each year, including a total of 1.35 million children and over a million people working full or part time — but unable to pay for housing.

Since then, homelessness has increased dramatically:

• In 2011 alone, family homelessness rose at a shocking average of sixteen percent in U.S. cities. And from 2007 to 2010, family homelessness rose 20% nationally. In the year from 2009 to 2010, the number of people living doubled up with family or friends out of economic necessity increased by 13%, to 6.8 million people.

• In the 2010-11 school year, over 1 million school children were homeless — up 13% from the 2009-10 school year.


In 1948, the U.S. led the world in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides, among other things, that “everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living…including the right to housing.” The following year, the 1949 federal Housing Act stated a goal of “a decent home and suitable living arrangement for every American family,” but that goal was never enshrined as a right for every American.

More recently, in 2010, President Obama stated that it is “simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country.” In March 2011, the U.S. acknowledged for the first time that rising homelessness implicates its human rights obligations and made commitments to the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council to “reduce homelessness,” “reinforce safeguards to protect the rights” of homeless people, and to continue efforts to ensure access to affordable housing for all.

Doesn’t feel like it at the moment, but check this out.

The past year has brought some encouraging policy developments regarding the human right to housing. At the federal level, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) and Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report, Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness, which, for the first time, recognizes that, in addition to possible violations under the U.S. Constitution, the criminalization of homelessness may implicate our human rights treaty obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention Against Torture. At the local level, Madison, WI passed a city resolution recognizing the human right to housing and pledging to take concrete steps to realize that right.

Now if it only meant something and they followed through on the resolution in the last budget. The county did much better than the city in the budget, then blew it with their actions at Lake View Hill.

This is, of course, where I have been paying a lot of attention lately . . . because, say it with me, there is NO LEGAL PLACE TO GO!

Criminalization of Homelessness. Despite a dire lack of adequate shelter and affordable housing, homeless persons are increasingly criminalized for engaging in necessary, life-sustaining activities – like sleeping and sitting – that they often have no choice but to perform in public spaces. Between 2009 and 2011, such laws criminalizing homelessness increased by as much as 10%. This approach has been criticized by international experts including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. Criminalization does not address the root causes of homelessness and is actually counterproductive – it saddles homeless individuals with criminal records, making it more difficult for them to secure or maintain employment, housing and benefits; burdens the criminal justice system; and violates homeless individuals’ civil and human rights. Significantly, the USICH and DOJ report, Searching out Solutions, criticizes such measures and notes that they may violate not only federal consitutional rights but also international human rights—the first time a federal agency report has done so. While the report was in response to a Congressional mandate enacted following advocacy by the Law Center and others, it is still an important step forward. Nevertheless, the federal government still has not conditioned its funding on cities’ renunciation of such practices—indeed, some cities carry out criminalization policies using federal funds—and it remains to be seen whether USICH, HUD, or DOJ will actively discourage cities from enacting and enforcing such laws and policies and promote constructive alternatives. Meanwhile, a few communities have adopted constructive alternative approaches, such as those profiled in Searching Out Solutions, but unfortunately, examples like these are limited and some cities that have adopted positive approaches continue to adopt and enforce measures criminalizing homelessness.

A few things in the Searching out Solutions federal government report of interest to me and that I think we should explore locally are:
– Ensure 24-hour access to shelters and/or services that offer alternatives to living in public spaces and access to services that meet the basic needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in order to reduce visible street homelessness and contribute to reductions in homelessness
– Create street outreach teams and provide safe havens to help chronically homeless individuals exit the streets
– Improve access to mainstream benefit programs (SNAP, Medicaid, SSI/SSDI) by ensuring all those eligible receive benefits through streamlining application processes for multiple benefit programs and enhanced outreach by service providers
– Outreach and engagement involving police and service provider collaboration to link people with supportive housing and avoid their arrest (Of course, we need housing to be available)
– Cross-training of police officers and service providers to facilitate information sharing and promote ongoing coordination
– Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) with specially trained police officers working with behavioral health professionals to respond to crises involving people with mental illness

There’s more solutions in the report, you might want to read them.

Does this sound familiar . . .

Reflecting the frustration of business owners, community residents, and civic leaders who feel that street homelessness infringes on the safety, attractiveness and livability of their cities, some communities around the country are using, or considering using, the criminal justice system to minimize the visibility of people experiencing homelessness. In these instances, formal and informal law enforcement policies are adopted to limit where individuals who experience homelessness can congregate, and punish those who engage in life-sustaining or natural human activities in public spaces. Examples of such criminalization strategies include the following:

– Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces
– Ordinances that punish people for begging or panhandling in order to move people who are poor or homeless out of a city or downtown area
– Local measures which ban or limit food distribution in public places in an attempt to curb the congregation of individuals who are homeless
– Sweeps of areas in which people who are homeless are living in order to drive them out of those areas
– Selective enforcement of neutral laws such as jaywalking, loitering, and open container laws 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

These law enforcement measures do not solve the underlying causes of the problem. These measures punish people who currently live on the street and do nothing to reduce the factors contributing to homelessness. Rather than helping people to regain housing, obtain employment, or access needed treatment and services, criminalization creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back.6 Sweeps can also result in the destruction of the personal property of people experiencing homelessness, including identification documents and medication. It can be much more difficult to secure employment, benefits, and housing with a criminal record. Many of these measures include criminal penalties for their violation; therefore, they actually exacerbate the problem by adding additional obstacles to overcoming homelessness.
In addition, these measures are costly, using critical public resources for law enforcement activities.

Despite claims that tickets have been dropped, the court date for the people sleeping on Lake View Hill is Friday and we have received nothing in writing indicating otherwise. And it seems that we (city and county) have crossed off just about every item on the list above to criminalize the homeless. While we might be held up as good examples for passing resolutions, we seem to have a very long way to go in our actions.

Tho local government has chosen to ignore this issue, or claim it is too expensive for them to address . . . its one of the main contributing factors:

Affordability: A quarter of American renters spend more than half of their income on rent, putting these families one paycheck away from homelessness. For extremely-low income (ELI) households, the percentage paying more than half of their income in rent jumps to 76%. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of available, affordable housing for low-income renters. In 2010, there were over 10 million very low-income renters and only 4.5 million affordable rental units, 40% of which were occupied by higher-income renters. On top of the existing gap in availability of affordable units, the supply of low-cost rental units has declined since 2007. While the affordable housing stock declines each year and more families and individuals end up living on the streets, the rental market for higher-income households continues to grow, foreclosed homes stand vacant, and abandoned government-owned properties remain empty.

Sigh . . . .

Categories: | Dane | Madison | Media | Wisconsin

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