The Road to Geneva: The Right to Family

This is the seventh 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.

Homeless parents in the US are often faced with the impossible, heart wrenching decision to have to either separate from their children in order to find shelter, or see their children taken away because they choose to stay together without permanent housing. Families facing homelessness often have little choice but to separate due to shelter imposed rules based on sex. And, children are increasingly removed from homes and placed in foster care due to inadequate housing. Both issues represent stark problems in the U.S. that revolve around access to adequate housing and represent violations to the Right to Family under Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Article 23 says that society owes protection to the family because it is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” According to an article in the ABA Child Law Practice Journal called “Housing Resources for Families at Risk of Separation,” “families represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population in the United States.” Rather than protecting the right of homeless families or families living in inadequate housing, U.S. laws and practices thwart family unification.

Most shelters in the United States are segregated by sex, thus fathers rarely have the option of staying with their family. Mothers are likely to be separated from their adolescent sons. Families are all too often faced with the choice to either separate for shelter or forego a safe place to sleep to stay together. These shelter separations last, on average, six months.

The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare notes on their website that daily, almost a half million children are separated from their families and placed into the U.S. foster care system, due in large part to inadequate housing. Many states forcibly remove children because of “neglect” related to the lack of stable housing. Twelve states have taken a stance against these forced removals by agreeing that parental inability to financially sustain housing does not constitute neglect.

Some cities such as Patterson, New Jersey, have found innovative alternatives to separating families or removing children. In Patterson, a $5 million project was created to turn a vacant lot into an apartment complex for children at risk of removal to foster care to live with grandparents. The grandparents receive rent subsidies while living in the apartment complex. Overall, alternative approaches, like that in Patterson, that provide housing options to maintain family units and avoid child removal or shelter separation are more effective solutions to maintaining the rights of families.

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

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