I Believe in Human Rights: Liberty Begins at Home

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she 
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
--Emma Lazarus

The words of poet Emma Lazarus evoke a very particular meaning of liberty, and spirit of the United States. It is an idea, a promise that turns away from outdated social structures and embraces equality of opportunity. Through the golden door lies a country whose citizens have inalienable rights – to the pursuit of happiness along with life and liberty. Through the golden door is a home.

I believe in human rights and that our fullest capacity to express these rights depends on having a space, a place of our own in which to thrive. “Home” is the embodiment of liberty in the broadest sense. It is a place where you can be yourself, collect your thoughts, care for your loved ones, and find repose. And it’s a place into which you welcome your friends and neighbors, if you so choose. Home is not the only place you enjoy your right to be human, but it is the most cherished.

At the National Alliance to End Homelessness, we are passionate in our conviction that no one in our community should be living without a home, or suffering the diminished liberty that goes along with experiencing homelessness. We are convinced that, with effective public policies and communities committed to implementing those policies, we can end homelessness.

On one night in 2013, there were 610,000 people experiencing homelessness in the United States, including 222,000 people in families. More than 92,000 people experiencing homelessness had disabilities that cause them significant difficulties in regard to housing. This is unacceptable. We are working with national partners and communities to drive these numbers to zero as quickly as possible. The guiding principle for individuals and families should be Housing First – speedy access to appropriate permanent housing with access to voluntary services as needed. 

We are encouraged when we see the numbers of homeless people reduced from year to year in annual point-in-time counts. National estimates just published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that chronic homelessness decreased by 16 percent from 2010 to 2013. Homelessness among veterans Veterans went down by 25 percent between 2007 and 2012.

The same report, however, documented 140,000 children who were homeless at a point in time in 2013. So we deeply feel the urgency of moving more quickly to reach the goals set in Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness: Ending veterans Veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness by 2015; and ending family and youth homelessness by 2020.

Of course, the numbers do not tell the whole story of homelessness and its impact on individuals, families, and communities. They never can. The counts of our homeless populations help us as a country to hold ourselves accountable for safeguarding human rights and the promise of liberty.

It is fitting to acknowledge homelessness as a human rights issue now, in December, as cold weather bears down in many parts of the country, literally threatening the lives of people who are not properly housed. On December 21, the darkest night of the year, homeless advocates gather in their communities to memorialize those who have died on the streets in the year past. At the Alliance in December, we reflect on our own obligations: Paying respects means bearing down on efforts to end homelessness once and for all.

Lisa Stand specializes in Health Law, Advocacy Campaigns, and Community Engagement at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.