U.S. Report to the Human Rights Council Under-Represents the Violations of the Human Right to Housing

Last Friday, the U.S. government released its report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, downplaying the state of housing and homelessness concerns in the U.S.

The report was prepared as part of the U.S. government’s obligations for its second Universal Periodic Review by the Council, with an oral review to take place in May. Every four-and-a-half years, the U.S.–and every other country—undergoes such a review on all its human rights commitments. In 2010, the U.S. accepted recommendations during its first Universal Periodic Review to:

  1. Reduce homelessness;
  2. Reinforce legal protections for homeless persons;
  3. Create adequate, affordable housing for all segments of American society; and
  4. Take further measures to address discrimination and inequalities in housing.

For its second review, the U.S. must report on the progress it has made in implementing these recommendations. While necessarily highly abbreviated in a report limited to 20 pages that must cover all 200 recommendations from the previous review, the report nevertheless does injustice to the scale and scope of housing rights violations in the U.S., stating:

The United States is committed to ending homelessness, and has made great progress in this area. For example, in 2010, we launched Opening Doors, a strategic plan aimed at ending homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015; chronic homelessness by 2016; and homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020; and setting a path to eradicate all types of homelessness in the United States. HUD’s statistics show that since that launch, chronic homelessness has dropped 21 percent, homelessness among families has declined 15 percent, and homelessness among veterans has fallen by 33 percent. In 2016, the new National Housing Trust Fund is expected to begin distributing funds to increase and preserve affordable housing for very low-income and homeless individuals. Additionally, federal law guarantees immediate access to a free appropriate public education for children and youth experiencing homelessness.

The Law Center has held and participated in numerous meetings and consultations with the U.S. government over the past four years to discuss progress in achieving the 2010 recommendations. This includes a meeting just last Wednesday, facilitated by the Department of Housing & Urban Development. As outlined in our report to the Human Rights Council issued last September, with regards to the housing-specific recommendations accepted by the U.S., since 2010:

  1. Homelessness has not been reduced. Despite gains for some sub-populations including veterans and chronically homeless individuals, the number of homeless families, children, and unaccompanied youth has risen since 2010.  U.S. law provides no entitlement to housing assistance for low income people; recognition of a right to even basic shelter is extremely limited.
  2. Homeless persons remain vulnerable to threats. Despite the lack of adequate housing or even shelter, many homeless people in the United States regularly have no choice but to face the degradation of performing basic bodily functions—sitting, eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom—in public. This is compounded when they are criminally punished for engaging in these basic, life-sustaining activities. The enforcement of these laws which deny homeless persons’ humanity leads to a climate which permits brutal violence against homeless persons to take place.
  3. Housing affordability remains at crisis levels. One quarter of renters pay more than 50% of their income on housing; conversely, only one quarter of renters eligible for federal housing assistance actually receive it, and the federal budget for developing and maintaining public housing and providing for low-income housing subsidies has decreased. No binding requirements exist for jurisdictions to plan for and create incentives for the production of sufficient adequate, affordable housing for low-income persons. Lack of affordable housing remains a principal cause of homelessness in the U.S.
  4. Discrimination on the basis of race, disability, gender, national origin, criminal background, and a number of other characteristics remains persistent in the housing market. Foreclosures and the lack of maintenance of foreclosed properties by institutional owners have taken a disparate toll in minority communities. This leads to the persistence of segregated, inadequate housing conditions for many minorities. The federal government is failing to use its full powers to correct these inequities, and in some cases is promoting them.

The Law Center and its partners put forth a series of recommendations on how best to implement the right to housing in the U.S in their alternative stakeholder report to the Council. The Law Center looks forward to continuing to use the Review process to push forward the dialogue on the human right to housing with the government, but we believe as part of an honest human rights assessment, the government must first acknowledge the depth of the ongoing housing crisis, both in our representations to the international community as well as to its constituents here at home.

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The Law Center’s 2014 Accomplishments and an Overview of Homelessness in America

This past year was an incredible one for the Law Center thanks to our many advocates and supporters. We saw many accomplishments and raised an unprecedented amount of awareness on the issue of homelessness. See a synopsis of our 2014 successes here and in a letter from our Executive Director and Founder, Maria Foscarinis.

It gives us great hope that one day these successes will translate into our ultimate goal, to end and prevent homelessness in America.

For an overview of homelessness in America, please see our newest fact sheet which provides statistics and information related to the demographics of people experiencing homelessness, as well as the causes of homelessness, available here.

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Supreme Court Asked to Review Wisconsin Voter ID Case

On January 7, 2015, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (Law Center) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review last fall’s 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Frank v. Walker, our challenge to the Wisconsin voter ID statute. In our petition to the Court, the Law Center argued that the appeals court decision mischaracterized facts found at trial, and applied a flawed legal standard in analyzing both equal protection and Voting Rights Act (VRA) claims.

The petition argues that the Supreme Court should decide the important voting rights question posed by this case – whether voter ID laws are constitutional when they burden the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of state residents and do not advance a legitimate state interest. With respect to the equal protection claim, the petition argues that the 7th Circuit erred in finding that it was obligated to uphold the Wisconsin voter ID law under the Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, because unlike in Crawford substantial evidence was presented at trial to demonstrate the significant burdens of the law. In addition, the petition argues that the 7th Circuit improperly analyzed this case under the VRA. Specifically, the 7th Circuit improperly determined that a VRA plaintiff is required to prove intentional discrimination, as opposed to demonstrating a discriminatory impact – and that such a plaintiff must prove a denial of the right to vote, although the statute only requires proof of an abridgement of the right to vote.

Frank v. Walker was filed by the Law Center and our co-counsel at the ACLU, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and Dechert LLP. The Supreme Court petition was jointly filed with the League of United Latin American Citizens, represented by Arnold & Porter and the Advancement Project. The suit seeks to protect the voting rights of all Wisconsin voters, including approximately 300,000 registered voters who lack the necessary ID to vote under the voter ID law; a significant number are low income or homeless individuals.

A copy of the filed petition can be found at: http://nlchp.org/documents/Frank_v_Walker_SC_petition_20150107

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Funding Allocation Made To National Housing Trust Fund

After more than a decade of work by the Law Center and other advocates seeking to generate more federal funding for affordable housing development, the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) became law in 2008.  The funding source for the NHTF was to be a percentage of the profits from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Unfortunately, due to the recession and foreclosure crisis, these entities failed to turn a profit in 2008 and subsequent years, and contributions to the NHTF were suspended.

However, on December 11, Federal Housing Finance Administration Director notified both Fannie and Freddie that in his determination both agencies are once again profitable, and thus must contribute to the NHTF going forward.  The contribution will be based on 2015 profits and will be made at the end of the year, so funds will not be available through the NHTF until early 2016.  Despite the lag time before the NHTF will begin to distribute funds, we are pleased by this important decision and excited to see the NHTF finally move closer to operation.

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Food-Sharing Ordinance in Dallas Revised

On Wednesday, December 10, the Law Center formally settled our long-standing litigation with the city of Dallas, over the city’s ordinance imposing unreasonable burdens on religious and other nonprofit organizations seeking to share food with homeless persons in public spaces.  As part of the settlement, the Dallas City Council approved a revised ordinance governing food sharing, and agreed to pay the Law Center and our clients $250,000.  In March, 2013, the Law Center secured a favorable judicial decision in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, in Dallas.  The decision found that significant portions of the ordinance violated the Texas Religious Freedom Act – imposing undue burdens on our clients, religious organizations sharing food with homeless persons out of their spiritual beliefs and convictions.

Specifically, the settlement and revised ordinance:

  • Eliminate the need for organizations to provide advance notice of food sharing, unless more than 75 people will be fed.
  • Remove the requirement that organizations sharing food provide restroom facilities.
  • Allow people sharing food to sanitize their hands with liquid sanitizer, rather than requiring them to provide access to soap and running water.
  • Apply to all organizations sharing food with homeless persons, not just religious groups.

This, especially in light of the recent attention on food-sharing bans, is a crucial victory in our effort to reverse the criminalization of homelessness. The Law Center is committed to ensuring the rights of those experiencing homelessness are secure, as well as the rights of those wishing to help them.

Read even more about this at Think Progress, This Texas City’s Attempt to Fight Charities that Feed the Homeless Cost it 8 Years and $250,000.

 

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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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