The Road to Geneva: Criminalization – Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading

This is the third edition of a new blogs series (see first and second blog entries) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

Every night in America homeless people are harassed for something as simple as lying down in public. Once cited, their criminal records become an additional barrier to accessing housing, employment, and government benefits. This process of criminalization turns into a vicious cycle.

U.S. constitutional interpretations of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment should include arresting or fining homeless people for necessary human functions such as sleeping or going to the bathroom in public spaces when no alternatives exist. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stipulates that no citizen should be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The language of Article 7 parallels the U.S. 8th Amendment which protects against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Thus, an acknowledgment by the Human Rights Committee (HRC) that U.S. laws criminalizing homelessness violate Article 7 of the ICCPR could give strength to U.S. advocates fighting these laws on behalf of homeless clients across the country.

A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights found that such criminalization leaves homeless people with “no viable place to sleep, sit, eat, or drink…[and] can thus have serious adverse physical and psychological effects on persons living in poverty, undermining their right to an adequate standard of physical and mental health and even amounting to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Public spaces often function as places of last resort for people experiencing homelessness.

In partnership with local advocates, the Law Center filed a complaint in Boise, ID, on behalf of homeless individuals who were cited for sleeping in public. The complaint stated that “anywhere from 2,000 to 4,500 people are homeless on any given night, while shelters only have beds for approximately 300.” The question then becomes, where do we expect the 4,200 people to sleep? The criminalization approach misdirects state resources away from more cost effective approaches such as transitional housing and short or long-term shelters. The Law Center will be defending against the City of Boise motion for summary judgment in the case next month in District Court.  

The HRC added criminalization of homelessness as an ICCPR violation for its discriminatory effects under Articles 2 and 26 (see blog post on 10-4-13) to its list of issues for the Oct. 17-18th hearings of the U.S. on ICCPR compliance. However, Article 7 violations have not been established by the HRC. Representatives from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) who will attend the U.S. ICCPR hearings intend to lobby HRC committee members on Article 7 violations in hopes that the HRC stance on the issue could have a real impact on local advocacy both in and out of court. HRC acknowledgment of U.S. Article 7 violations would create persuasive advocacy arguments on 8th Amendment claims and could help reframe laws criminalizing homelessness as cruel, inhuman, and degrading.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

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