We Still Believe in Human Rights

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Written by Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and Laura Green Zeilinger, Executive Director of the USICH

The original post can be found here, on the USICH’s blog.

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Around the country, more communities are working in partnership with the Federal government to develop housing crisis response systems that effectively prevent and end homelessness.  No longer can there be any question that ending homelessness is possible, if we dedicate resources and energy to this goal. This shift brings with it the opportunity for us to meet the basic human rights of everyone in our community—when we put people first and focus on the human need for housing and proven, cost-effective solutions, we can make a difference.

Last year, USICH marked Human Rights Day, by launching a blog series entitled “I Believe in Human Rights.” We believe now as we believed then, that the rights to have basic human needs met are among the most fundamental of human rights and are the core of our moral argument that homelessness should be ended.

The series included more than a dozen blogs, including those from then HUD Secretary and now OMB Director Shaun Donovan, State officials, international advocates, and many more.  One year later, the passion, experience, and commitment to human rights demonstrated in these blogs continue to resonate deeply with us.  Building on the series, USICH launched a new page of its website dedicated to Human Rights and Alternatives to Criminalization. Both USICH and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty were asked to share our model of human rights collaboration at a meeting at the Department of Justice, to help them take their own steps toward addressing justice issues through a human rights lens.

Maria FoscarinisUSICH has used every opportunity to explore what it means to incorporate human rights into practice with local, state, and Federal partners.  We’ve hosted community conversations to explore alternatives to criminalization, partnered with the Law Center to host a dialogue with participants at the Alliance’s National Conference on Homelessness, and explored opportunities for our Federal partners to incorporate this important issue in their relationships with communities.

Simultaneously, the Law Center has been building momentum against criminalization at the international level, where the three U.N. committees which monitor U.S. compliance with its human rights treaty obligations, the Human Rights Committee, Committee on the Elimination of  Racial Discrimination, and Committee Against Torture, each asked the U.S. to explain its policies on criminalization of homelessness; two of the committees also condemned it and called for additional Federal actions to discourage the practice at the local level.

This Human Rights Day, USICH and the Law Center renew our commitment to addressing homelessness as a Human Rights issue and to work across this country to implement evidence-based solutions and stop the criminalization of homelessness. As USICH states in its Searching Out Solutions report, and the Law Center in No Safe Place, criminalizing basic human needs to sleep, rest, eat, or go to the bathroom is wrong—morally and legally—and is the least cost-effective way to address homelessness in our communities.

As we fight the criminalization of homelessness, we emphasize that our goal is not the right to sleep on the street; our goal is ensuring that no one needs to sleep on the street in the first place because everyone has a safe, stable place that is home. That is our goal.

Yes, we believe in Human Rights. We believe in Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1, when it says that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” And we believe in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal…with certain unalienable Rights.” And we believe in what President Obama stated in Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, it is “simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s Veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country.”

We know we can end homelessness. We know we must end homelessness, because we still believe in human rights.

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Real Commitment or Just a Show? An outsider perspective on the 2014 U.S. government human rights consultation sessions

By Reut Cohen

As a Herman Schwartz Israel Human Rights Law Fellow at American University’s Washington College of Law, I have had the privilege this past year to experience American life on the inside, but as an outsider. I call it a privilege because although my perspective is full of cultural and historical blind spots, and even when on many occasions I cannot understand subtle nuances, I feel that this position is also my biggest advantage. It enables me to think about issues that occupy Americans’ attention from a unique point of view. Indeed, sometimes this alien-like consciousness makes me much more critical toward U.S policies. But often times it actually makes me much more accepting and I am impressed by some of the progressive changes the U.S. is going through.

This dual set of viewpoints was emphasized when I attended the 2014 U.S. government human rights consultation sessions with civil society at the Department of State as part of my internship at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. These consultations were held due to the forthcoming reviews by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Human Rights Council. Sitting in the auditorium for the first couple of hours, I began envying Americans for their federal government. It left a good impression on me when representatives from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attended the Law Center’s presentation on criminalization of homelessness as a practice that violates human rights and listened to recommendations directed to them. How wonderful, I thought to myself, that the executive authority of this country acknowledges the important work NGOs do and wants to consult with advocates on how to implement U.S. obligations under international human rights covenants. I could only wish that this kind of process would someday be held in my home country, Israel.

Although the U.S government should be commended for taking these positive steps, after a while I started to think, “what if this consultation session is nothing but a show?” Perhaps it is just a strategy in which, by taking technical measures like consultations, the government makes us believe it is committed to human rights; when in practice, where policies and order of priorities need to be changed, when resources need to be reallocated in order to remedy human rights violations – the government stays resolutely in its old position. It was very disappointing, for example, when it was HUD’s turn to give a response to the Law Center’s presentation. Rather than giving a responsive answer to the presentation and properly addressing the recommendations, HUD’s delegates presented, so it seemed, prepared-in-advanced bullet points that failed in any way to address the advocates’ concerns, and merely stated recent agency accomplishments.

After debating with myself about which of those two conflicting points of view is the right one, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I did get the feeling that most, if not all, of the delegates were honest and genuine when they expressed their commitment to human rights. And I also understand that this is a long educational process on human rights for the domestic government agencies in which the consultation sessions are a (small) step forward. Nevertheless, for this country to truly be the “shining city on a hill” example of human rights it claims to be, it must demonstrate responsiveness to consultations like these in both word (by actually responding to the questions posed) and deed (by changing its policies to reflect its human rights obligations).

I hope the State Department and the relevant agencies like HUD will continue to work with the Law Center to positively build upon this step toward a more responsive dialogue and future where human rights are more than words on paper in Geneva, but a part of the fabric of domestic American policy. And I hope I can take the best of these practices, and both my optimism and critiques, home with me when I return to Israel this fall.

 

– Reut Cohen, AU-WCL Herman Schwartz Israel Human Rights Law Fellow

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No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Imagine living in a place where it is illegal to sleep, sit, lie down, or share food outdoors. Imagine that this is a place where you are often ignored or rejected by your fellow townspeople, police officers, and local elected officials. While this seems like a ridiculous concept, it is the daily reality for millions of homeless people throughout the United States who are suffering under laws that criminalize their basic life necessities.

Today, the Law Center released a new report, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.

This report looks at the landscape of criminalization in America, and finds that “despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive. The Law Center surveyed 187 cities and assessed the number and type of municipal codes that criminalize the life-sustaining behaviors of homeless people. The results of our research show that the criminalization of necessary human activities is all too common in cities across the country.” The report shines a spotlight on the fact that still far too many cities criminalize the basic life actions that homeless people have no choice but to perform in public.

No Safe Place also offers examples of effective constructive alternatives to criminalization, and highlights cities that have successfully implemented these solutions. Additionally, the report includes policy recommendations for lawmakers at the federal, state, and local levels, including a call for the federal government to take a leadership role in combatting the criminalization of homelessness and in promoting constructive alternatives.

This report is the Law Center’s eleventh report on criminalization. It builds upon our 2011 Criminalizing Crisis report, which detailed the breadth of anti-homelessness laws and practices in the United States, and provided examples of constructive alternatives to criminalization that are more effective in combating the myriad factors that contribute to homelessness. No Safe Place continues this analysis, and and examines changes and trends in laws within the past three years.

In our ongoing Countering Criminalization blog series, we’ve outlined the various ways in which criminalization laws violate the Constitution, and legal challenges that have been used to combat such laws. No Safe Place finds that despite these challenges, the prevalence of homelessness criminalization is increasing across the country, even though criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.

You can download a copy of No Safe Place by clicking here. If you’re interested in learning more, you can attend the Law Center’s free webinar tomorrow, Thursday, July 17, at 2:00 pm Eastern time – click here to register for free.

 

— Michael Maskin, Tufts Summer Fellow

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Upcoming Webinar – No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Which US cities have the worst policies that criminalize homelessness? How have criminalization laws changed in the past few years? What are some constructive solutions that communities can use to deal with homelessness? Join the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 2:00 PM EST for a free webinar addressing these questions and introducing our new report on the criminalization of homelessness in America, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, to be released on July 16.

Please click here to RSVP for the webinar.

 

— Michael Maskin, Tufts Summer Fellow

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Countering Criminalization: Constitutional Challenges Under the Fourteenth Amendment

This is the part six of our Countering Criminalization blog series, examining Constitutional Challenges and Constructive Alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees all Americans due process and equal protection of the laws. States and cities cannot discriminate in how laws are applied. But when laws are too vague or overbroad in punishing innocent or protected conduct, or do not provide sufficient opportunity to challenge the laws, they deny due process; and when laws are applied to homeless people differently or more aggressively than they are applied to others, they fail to observe equal protection. These laws, then, unconstitutionally violate the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In New York, homeless people who were or appeared to be homeless were routinely ejected from Penn Station, while other members of the public had open access to the facility. In the case Streetwatch v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a federal court in New York found that police arrests and ejections of individuals from the station denied due process, because the public was given an open invitation to the station, and because the police had too much discretion in enforcing rules.

A local ordinance in St. Petersburg, Florida allowed city officials to issue temporary trespass warnings and exclude individuals from certain public spaces. Homeless people were given trespass warnings and required to leave and not return to space that was otherwise open to the public. In the case Catron v. City of St. Petersburg, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court concluded that the ordinance failed to provide people sufficient opportunity to contest the trespass warnings, and therefore violated due process.

Criminalizing innocent actions does nothing to solve the true problems of homelessness. And vague, overbroad laws that are applied in a discriminatory manner violate the Constitution.

Stay tuned for our next post in the Countering Criminalization series, when we will begin examining Constructive Alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

— Cheryl Cortemeglia, Volunteer Staff Attorney

 

Photo by Flickr user rui-duarte (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Countering Criminalization: Constitutional Challenges Under the Eighth Amendment

This is the part five of our Countering Criminalization blog series, examining Constitutional Challenges and Constructive Alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

With national and local shortages of affordable housing and shelter beds, people experiencing homelessness are frequently left with no option but to perform their basic, life sustaining activities – such as eating, resting, and sleeping – in public. Despite this, local governments continue to pass and enforce laws that restrict these behaviors. Homeless people are routinely cited and arrested for these acts, and the resulting fines and convictions make it even more difficult to secure long-term employment and housing.

Laws that criminalize homelessness by turning basic, life-sustaining functions into criminal acts unconstitutionally violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts found that local laws in California and Florida were cruel and unusual punishment, for prosecuting and convicting homeless individuals for necessary actions – such as sleeping – when there is not enough shelter space, and they have no alternatives.

The Law Center’s 2013 report Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading notes that without housing or shelter, “many homeless people must undertake self-made solutions, such as forming alterative communities like tent cities, creating self-designed sanitation processes, or using public space to perform basic bodily functions when there is nowhere else to go.” However, they are “routinely penalized for designing self-help solutions to ensure their basic survival. Indeed, the criminal penalties associated with the activities of homelessness deepen vulnerabilities, making it more difficult for homeless people to find adequate housing or economic opportunity.”

Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to solve the problem. It is expensive, ineffective, and cruel. And when laws punish people for their basic life functions, they are cruel and unusual punishment.

Stay tuned for our next post in the Countering Criminalization series, when we will continue looking at Constitutional Challenges to the criminalization of homelessness.

— Cheryl Cortemeglia, Volunteer Staff Attorney

 

Photo by Flickr user steev (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Countering Criminalization: Constitutional Challenges Under the Fourth Amendment

This is the part four of our Countering Criminalization blog series, examining Constitutional Challenges and Constructive Alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

One of the basic rights that Americans enjoy every day is security against unreasonable searches and seizures. We know that our belongings – clothing, family photos, food, important personal documents, medicine, and all of our other possessions – are not under threat of being confiscated or thrown away by others. But for people experiencing homelessness and living outdoors, this security is often threatened.

Without a private place to keep personal belongings, homeless persons may have nowhere to store items like extra clothing, food, medicine, and paperwork, except in public. However, many cities have passed laws that prohibit storing personal belongings in public places. This leaves homeless people vulnerable to having their possessions confiscated or thrown away by police or city authorities, especially during sweeps and “clean ups”.

A 2011 survey by the Law Center found that more than a third of the cities surveyed restrict storing personal belongings in public places. As a result, one out of every five of the individuals surveyed reported having been arrested or cited for storing personal belongings in public.

However, enforcing laws that prohibit storing personal property in public or other outdoor places unconstitutionally violates the search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment.  In the case Pottinger v. City of Miami, a Florida federal court barred the city’s policy of confiscating and destroying the belongings of homeless people, because the plaintiffs exhibited a reasonable expectation of privacy in their belongings, by placing them against an object, covering them, or designating a person to watch them in parks or other areas where individuals reside.

The Fourth Amendment protects the right of people to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures, including the members of our communities who are homeless and must store their belongings in public places.

Stay tuned for our next post in the Countering Criminalization series, when we will continue looking at Constitutional Challenges to the criminalization of homelessness.

— Cheryl Cortemeglia, Volunteer Staff Attorney

 

Photo by Flickr user daquellamanera (CC BY 2.0)

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Countering Criminalization: Constitutional Challenges Under the First Amendment – Free Exercise of Religion

This is part three of our Countering Criminalization blog series, examining Constitutional Challenges and Constructive Alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

Caring for people in need is a core element of many people’s religious beliefs. Some religious organizations may express this belief by allowing homeless people who live outdoors to camp on their property, or sleep on their sidewalks, to give them a place to rest without fear of harassment.

In many cities, however, homeless people are fined and even arrested for sitting or lying down in public spaces, despite having no other place to perform these basic activities. A 2011 survey by the Law Center, which reviewed laws in 234 U.S. cities and surveyed 154 service providers, advocates, and people experiencing homelessness in 26 states, found that half of the cities prohibit sleeping or camping in particular public places, and a quarter have city-wide prohibitions on sleeping or camping. The result of these bans is that more than half of the individuals surveyed reported having been arrested or cited for camping or sleeping in public.

When they interfere with a religious organization’s ability to care for those in need, the local laws and ordinances which criminalize these activities unconstitutionally violate the free exercise of religion protections of the First Amendment.

In the 2002 case Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church v. The City of New York, a federal court ruled that the city could not enforce its ordinance prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on the church steps, because making this space available for homeless people was an expression of a sincerely held religious belief by the church.

Laws that make it illegal to perform basic life actions in public spaces do nothing to address the true causes of homelessness. And, in the case of restricting people sleeping on church sidewalk, these laws also violate people’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The criminalization of homelessness is ineffective and unconstitutional public policy.

Stay tuned for our next post in the Countering Criminalization series, when we will continue looking at Constitutional Challenges to the criminalization of homelessness.

— Cheryl Cortemeglia, Volunteer Staff Attorney

 

Photo by Flickr user actualmatthew (BY-NC 2.0)

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Countering Criminalization: Constitutional Challenges Under the First Amendment – Freedom of Speech

This is the part two of our Countering Criminalization blog series, examining Constitutional Challenges and Constructive Alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness.

In some cities, homeless people are fined and even arrested for sitting or lying down in public spaces, despite having no other place to perform these basic activities.  However, the local laws and ordinances which criminalize these activities unconstitutionally violate the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech, which includes non-verbal expression, allows us as Americans to be secure in the knowledge that we can express ourselves without fear of government sanction. But people who are homeless routinely encounter restraints when expressing their most basic needs to their fellow citizens. Berkeley, California instituted a local law restricting sitting or lying down on public sidewalks, which restricted the ability of homeless people to sit while soliciting. In Berkeley Community Health Project v. City of Berkeley, a federal court found that sitting while soliciting was likely expressive conduct, protected as free speech under the First Amendment. The court found that sitting while soliciting conveys a persuasive message of need, and people expressed discomfort at seeing sitting solicitors. Additionally, the court also found that the ordinance significantly burdens speech, and didn’t leave open sufficient alternatives for people who must sit. As a result, the city of Berkeley was barred from enforcing the law.

Where other cities continue to pass and enforce similar ordinances, homeless people’s freedom of speech continues to be unconstitutionally restricted. In a 2011 survey of homeless individuals and advocates, the Law Center found that about one in five homeless people has been cited or arrested for sitting on a public sidewalk, illustrating the widespread impact of this problem. Local governments should work to ensure that laws protect the essential freedoms of all citizens, rather than punishing the most vulnerable.

Stay tuned for our next post in the Countering Criminalization series, when we will continue looking at Constitutional Challenges to the criminalization of homelessness.

— Cheryl Cortemeglia, Volunteer Staff Attorney

 

Photo by Flickr user djs1021 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Countering Criminalization: Constitutional Challenges and Constructive Alternatives to Ineffective, Expensive, and Illegal Public Policies

Homelessness is an ongoing crisis in the U.S., affecting upwards of 3 million Americans every year, and plaguing communities from coast to coast. At the core of this crisis is a nationwide lack of affordable housing. Adequate affordable housing units are only available to about one third of the millions of extremely low-income renters that need them. Further, there is a severe lack of temporary shelter space to meet the emergency needs of those priced out of the housing market, with fewer
shelter beds than homeless people in the vast majority of U.S. cities. As a result, many people are left with no place to live but outdoors and in public spaces.

Homeless people who are forced to live outside on sidewalks, in parks, under bridges, or in other public spaces have no choice but to perform life-sustaining activities, such as eating, sleeping, and sitting down, in the public view. Despite this reality, many states and localities have passed and enforced laws treating these basic, necessary acts by homeless individuals as crimes.

In 2011, the Law Center assessed the scope of this criminalization, reviewing laws in 234 U.S. cities and surveying 154 service providers, advocates, and people experiencing homelessness in 26 states. We found that half of the cities prohibit sleeping or camping in particular public places, and one quarter have city-wide prohibitions on sleeping or camping. The effect of these bans is that more than half of the individuals surveyed reported arrests or citations for camping or sleeping in public. Further, one third of the cities prohibit even simply sitting down or lying down in certain public places, and about one in five individuals reported arrest or citation for sitting on a public sidewalk.

Laws that criminalize homelessness are often designed to mask visible homelessness, rather than address the root causes of the problem. These bad public policies are ineffective, exacerbating rather than reducing the problem. The misuse of the criminal justice system wastes precious public resources, crowds local jails, and clogs the court system – all at the expense of taxpayers.

This post begins our new blog series, Countering Criminalization. Over the next several weeks, we will discuss the criminalization of homelessness from two perspectives.

First, we will explore the legal problems associated with these ineffective criminalization laws in Constitutional Challenges. Courts have found that laws punishing camping, sleeping, sitting, or storing personal property in public places may run afoul of the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, making them unconstitutional violations of homeless persons’ civil rights.

Then, we’ll discuss positive solutions in Constructive Alternatives, examining solutions that have proven successful in communities across the nation.

Please join us over the next several weeks as we explore the criminalization of homelessness in depth.

— Cheryl Cortemeglia, Volunteer Staff Attorney

 

Photo by Flickr user irodman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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