The Road to Geneva: Liberty and Security of the Person

This is the fourth edition of a blog series (see blog intro) 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.

People experiencing homelessness in America are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. Local ordinances and police practices that criminalize behaviors that homeless people cannot avoid routinely result in unjustified citations, and often arrests. As noted in yesterday’s blog, these citations and arrests often create a vicious cycle of poverty. Detention and criminal records lead to loss of income, withdrawal of social benefits, and denial of access to housing programs for homeless persons and their families. 

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will lobby the UN Human Rights Committee on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) next week in Geneva. We will advocate to HRC committee members on the issue of arbitrary laws and detention of homeless persons in the U.S. under Article 9 of the ICCPR. Article 9 stipulates that, “everyone has the right to liberty and security of person…and no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.” Laws that criminalize behaviors that homeless people cannot avoid and that are enforced in a selective and arbitrary manner violate Article 9.  

A prime example of selective enforcement and arbitrary arrest can be found in the Columbia, South Carolina ordinance mentioned in the first blog. The city’s plan would ban homeless persons from downtown, force them to relocate to a shelter out of town, station a police officer between the shelter and the city to prevent homeless persons from returning to the city, and provide a telephone hotline number for residents to report homeless people to be picked up by police for simply walking downtown. Under the plan, the rights of homeless persons to exist in and move freely throughout public spaces were completely and arbitrarily diminished. After intervention from the Law Center and local justice advocates, the plan was scaled back, however it represents the increased attempts by U.S. cities and law enforcement to address homelessness by making it a crime.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was very critical of how “law enforcement officials often use ‘poverty’, ‘homelessness’, or ‘disadvantage’ as the indicator of criminality rather than actual or alleged criminal activity.” City councils and law enforcement often defend these forms of criminality under the guise of public safety. However, criminality ineffectively addresses these goals; the temporary arrest of homeless individuals will not deter people from sleeping, sitting, moving around, and begging in public when those are the only means of survival. Housing programs are the more cost effective approach, and are also the only alternative that addresses future survival behaviors in public, respects the basic human rights of homeless persons, and creates real solutions for the entire community.

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

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