I Believe in Human Rights: Ending Homelessness Will Require a Human Rights Approach

Many people acknowledge that in our civilized society, those among us who are so infirm, frail, and destitute that they are unable to take care of themselves are due dignity from the rest to be provided with their basic necessities, such as housing, provided by government. Any suggestion to the contrary would subject one to ridicule. Clearly, human rights demands that the infirm, frail, and destitute be provided housing.

Why do we still struggle to embrace the right that everyone is entitled to safe, decent, and affordable housing?  

In our Declaration of Independence we have proudly proclaimed that every person in the United States has certain unalienable rights. Those unalienable rights are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The right to housing or shelter is surely contained among those unalienable rights as it is a basic necessity of life. Providing shelter is about more than charity and compassion, it is about acting on a basic commitment enshrined in our Constitution.

Of course, the right of housing as an unalienable human right does not demand that upon their 18th birthday, each person in the United States be given the keys to a three bedroom, two bathroom house in the neighborhood of their choice.  

No, the right to housing demands that our government create the circumstances and means by which all individuals can reasonably secure safe affordable housing.

If individuals in our country don’t have the ability to provide for themselves and their families the basic necessities of life, then our democracy becomes illusory. Our Constitution becomes nothing more than a worthless promissory note.

In addressing sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in March of 1968, a few weeks before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech said,

“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?  . . .  What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”

Could we not ask ourselves the same question about the basic necessity of adequate housing?

What good does it do a person to have the legal right to be able to purchase housing if no affordable safe housing exists for the person to acquire?

If life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is to have meaning in our democracy it is incumbent upon government to provide sufficient affordable housing stock and to create conditions for all to earn enough wages to secure safe affordable housing.

As a starting point, we must create an economic environment that allows individuals to earn enough to provide for the basic necessities of life. Second, we must provide an adequate supply of safe, decent, and affordable housing.

In creating a viable economic environment in which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is meaningful we must start by being truly committed to educating every child so that she can maximize her talents and abilities. We must also be committed to eradicating barriers of racial and ethnic discrimination that hinder him. We must also ensure that all who enter the workforce have the opportunity to find jobs that pay them livable wages.

In providing an adequate supply of safe, decent, and affordable housing such that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is meaningful, we must start by committing ourselves to ensuring that all of our children have safe places to call home and that no child falls prey to those who wish to exploit them. In Minnesota, children and youth age 21 and younger make up 46 percent of our state’s homeless population. This is unacceptable. Can we honestly claim that we are leaders on human rights in the world when so many children are homeless in our midst?

We need to reclaim the mantle of leadership on human rights by leading through our actions to end homelessness. We need to be committed to ending homelessness for children. We need to be committed to ending homelessness for those struggling to find work that will pay them livable wages.  

Let’s be committed to ensuring that basic human rights are provided to all people. Let’s truly be committed to ending homelessness for all.

Kevin Lindsey was appointed Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in February 2011. He had previously served as a civil litigation attorney in the Office of the Ramsey County Attorney, and has 20 years of experience in resolving complex legal and public policy questions.