Chicago Blues

For the past two days, I’ve been in Chicago, participating in one of the final government consultations with community groups in preparation for the U.S. review by the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) (see earlier posts on consultations in DC and NYC).

The government brought a full delegation of representatives from the Departments of State, Justice and Housing & Urban Development, which recognizes the key point that this conversation, even though it’s taking place as part of an international review, is inherently about how domestic policy protects – or fails to protect – human rights.

Speaker after speaker shared stories of one of the most acute failures in recent history: the ongoing housing crisis.  At best, the government turned a blind eye to the consequences of deregulating the housing market so lenders could make huge profits off predatory loans. At worst, the government actively participated in creating segregated communities and destroying affordable housing with no plan to recreate it.

Though many stories were shared, I want to focus in on one that shows the intersection of the housing and justice systems, and where a simple change could make a huge difference.  The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) currently uses arrest records as a screening mechanism to prevent people from accessing public housing.  Participants shared testimony of how homeless persons would be targeted and arrested for sleeping on the streets (which they wouldn’t have to do if they had homes) or for other minor violations. Even if they were not convicted, these very arrests for being homeless prevented them from obtaining housing!  And of course, arrests and lack of address are barriers to employment, further ensuring people have no options but staying on the streets.

This shows the interdependence of human rights – how violations of civil rights intersect with other rights, like the right to housing and the right to work. HUD and the Justice Department need to work together on the bigger picture of discouraging the criminalization of homelessness by taking a strong stance against this process as part of the new Federal Plan to End Homelessness. But a small, immediate step can be taken to stop the CHA from using arrest records to screen out the neediest of housing applicants, which is not required by federal law.  This would be an excellent way to show they were listening in Chicago, and to demonstrate they are serious about making human rights a reality here in the U.S.

-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director

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