U.S. Report to the Human Rights Council Under-Represents the Violations of the Human Right to Housing

Last Friday, the U.S. government released its report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, downplaying the state of housing and homelessness concerns in the U.S.

The report was prepared as part of the U.S. government’s obligations for its second Universal Periodic Review by the Council, with an oral review to take place in May. Every four-and-a-half years, the U.S.–and every other country—undergoes such a review on all its human rights commitments. In 2010, the U.S. accepted recommendations during its first Universal Periodic Review to:

  1. Reduce homelessness;
  2. Reinforce legal protections for homeless persons;
  3. Create adequate, affordable housing for all segments of American society; and
  4. Take further measures to address discrimination and inequalities in housing.

For its second review, the U.S. must report on the progress it has made in implementing these recommendations. While necessarily highly abbreviated in a report limited to 20 pages that must cover all 200 recommendations from the previous review, the report nevertheless does injustice to the scale and scope of housing rights violations in the U.S., stating:

The United States is committed to ending homelessness, and has made great progress in this area. For example, in 2010, we launched Opening Doors, a strategic plan aimed at ending homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015; chronic homelessness by 2016; and homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020; and setting a path to eradicate all types of homelessness in the United States. HUD’s statistics show that since that launch, chronic homelessness has dropped 21 percent, homelessness among families has declined 15 percent, and homelessness among veterans has fallen by 33 percent. In 2016, the new National Housing Trust Fund is expected to begin distributing funds to increase and preserve affordable housing for very low-income and homeless individuals. Additionally, federal law guarantees immediate access to a free appropriate public education for children and youth experiencing homelessness.

The Law Center has held and participated in numerous meetings and consultations with the U.S. government over the past four years to discuss progress in achieving the 2010 recommendations. This includes a meeting just last Wednesday, facilitated by the Department of Housing & Urban Development. As outlined in our report to the Human Rights Council issued last September, with regards to the housing-specific recommendations accepted by the U.S., since 2010:

  1. Homelessness has not been reduced. Despite gains for some sub-populations including veterans and chronically homeless individuals, the number of homeless families, children, and unaccompanied youth has risen since 2010.  U.S. law provides no entitlement to housing assistance for low income people; recognition of a right to even basic shelter is extremely limited.
  2. Homeless persons remain vulnerable to threats. Despite the lack of adequate housing or even shelter, many homeless people in the United States regularly have no choice but to face the degradation of performing basic bodily functions—sitting, eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom—in public. This is compounded when they are criminally punished for engaging in these basic, life-sustaining activities. The enforcement of these laws which deny homeless persons’ humanity leads to a climate which permits brutal violence against homeless persons to take place.
  3. Housing affordability remains at crisis levels. One quarter of renters pay more than 50% of their income on housing; conversely, only one quarter of renters eligible for federal housing assistance actually receive it, and the federal budget for developing and maintaining public housing and providing for low-income housing subsidies has decreased. No binding requirements exist for jurisdictions to plan for and create incentives for the production of sufficient adequate, affordable housing for low-income persons. Lack of affordable housing remains a principal cause of homelessness in the U.S.
  4. Discrimination on the basis of race, disability, gender, national origin, criminal background, and a number of other characteristics remains persistent in the housing market. Foreclosures and the lack of maintenance of foreclosed properties by institutional owners have taken a disparate toll in minority communities. This leads to the persistence of segregated, inadequate housing conditions for many minorities. The federal government is failing to use its full powers to correct these inequities, and in some cases is promoting them.

The Law Center and its partners put forth a series of recommendations on how best to implement the right to housing in the U.S in their alternative stakeholder report to the Council. The Law Center looks forward to continuing to use the Review process to push forward the dialogue on the human right to housing with the government, but we believe as part of an honest human rights assessment, the government must first acknowledge the depth of the ongoing housing crisis, both in our representations to the international community as well as to its constituents here at home.

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