The Road to Geneva: Privacy

This is the fifth edition of a blogs 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 facing homelessness essentially live in the public sphere. A concept of privacy usually comes from a person’s personal belongings and is confined to personally created shelters. This modicum of privacy is often destroyed by city-approved sweeps that result in the arbitrary seizure and frequent destruction of people’s personal property. Often, belongings are seized when people are asleep, momentarily away, or detained by law enforcement. This practice of city sweeps and property destruction violates article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). 

Article 17 of the ICCPR protects against “arbitrary or unlawful interference with…[a person’s] privacy.” At next week’s UN Human Rights Committee hearing on U.S. ICCPR compliance, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will argue that the prevalent U.S. city sweeps, which often lead to destruction of homeless person’s minimal property, constitute arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy.   

The repercussions of sweeps alone are significant enough to render them arbitrary and unreasonable. In Fresno, CA, homeless individuals reported that police destroyed clothing and medicine belonging to individuals and families with no alternative shelter, storage places, or housing. In nearby Los Angeles, CA, the city recently faced its fifth lawsuit since 1987 over the city’s practice of seizing homeless people’s property during sweeps. This violation of people’s privacy under Article 17 coincides with U.S. constitutional violations related to Fourth Amendment illegal search and seizures of people’s property. Advocates across the country can make the strong argument that city sweeps violate international law and U.S. Constitutional rights.    

The Law Center’s report, Criminalizing Crisis, notes that cities often rationalize these sweeps by saying that they “clean-up” areas of the city and are important for public health and safety. However, this reasoning does not address the underlying need for housing and creates more of a public safety issue by confiscating and destroying the minimal property (including identification, medication, clothing, and food) that homeless individuals own. These belongings are often vital to ensuring employment, obtaining government resources, accessing healthcare, and entering housing programs.

Since the U.S. fails to provide people with adequate shelter, individuals and families have no choice but to live in public. Makeshift encampments and shelters create security and privacy for people with no housing alternatives. City sweeps and corresponding destruction of property are an unreasonably harsh response. The sweeps do little to protect public safety and instead do more to further harm people who have minimal survival resources. HRC recognition of Article 17 privacy violations by the U.S. related to prevalent city sweeps, could help us advocate for housing alternatives across America as a more productive approach than the current perpetuation of poverty through property destruction.

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

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