Building Momentum to Abolish Criminalization of Homelessness

Earlier this year, Jerome Murdough, a homeless Veteran, died tragically of dehydration and heat exhaustion in an overheated prison cell after being arrested for “trespassing” because he sought warmth and shelter in an enclosed stairwell of a Harlem public housing building during a week of sub-freezing temperatures. Every day, people who experience homelessness are subjected to local laws and ordinances that challenge their human rights and create real and lasting barriers. Jerome Murdough should have never been in that jail cell in the first place. If Jerome Murdough was served by a system that approached housing as a human right—and homelessness as something to solve rather than something to criminalize—he might still be alive today.

Leading up to the publication of the USICH’s Searching Out Solutions report in 2012, advocates had steadily been building domestic consensus that criminalization of homelessness is ineffective, cost-inefficient policy. Searching Out Solutions also states that, “In addition to violating domestic law, criminalization measures may also violate international human rights law, specifically the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” In the two years since the publication of that report, the international consensus has now coalesced to confirm: criminalization indeed violates our human rights obligations, and action must be taken to abolish these practices.

In March, following the Murdough revelations, supported by advocacy from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the U.N. Human Rights Committee condemned the criminalization of homelessness as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” during its review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee called for the United States to abolish laws and policies making homelessness a crime and to offer incentives to decriminalize homelessness, including by providing financial support to local authorities that implement alternatives to criminalization, and withdrawing funding from local authorities that criminalize homelessness. In a powerful closing statement on the U.S. review, the Chairperson of the Committee, Sir Nigel Rodley, said, “I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter.”

In August, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination echoed the call for the abolition of criminalization and promotion of federal incentives following its review of U.S. government compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Committee stated it is “concerned at the high number of homeless persons, who are disproportionately from racial and ethnic minorities ... and at the criminalization of homelessness through laws that prohibit activities such as loitering, camping, begging, and lying in public spaces.”

Complementing the international consensus, domestic implementation of these human rights standards is increasingly taking root as well. Starting last December, USICH began a blog series “I Believe in Human Rights,” which looked at housing and homelessness as a human rights issue. USICH now hosts a page dedicated to human rights and alternatives to criminalization on its website, and was invited by the U.S. Department of Justice to share the human rights model that it is developing with other agencies.

At the local level, Mayor Kitty Piercy of Eugene, Ore., published an article in U.S. Mayor promoting the use of international human rights standards to craft local policy. Mayor Piercy, who joined the Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in June, specifically addressed homelessness amongst the issues human rights standards could help on. We hope the recent UN recommendations and Mayor Piercy’s commitments push Eugene, and other communities, in a positive direction and away from ordinances—like anti-camping bans—that are not consistent with a human rights approach.

In November, the Law Center will once again travel to Geneva to ask the U.N. Committee Against Torture to complete the consensus under each of the U.S.’s human rights treaty commitments that criminalization violates our human rights obligations. In the meantime, we will continue to work to ensure the Federal recommendations to provide incentives for decriminalization are implemented, and we invite municipalities to contact us to help them turn away from counterproductive, rights-violating practices, and create a model human rights approach to homelessness, so that no person ever again need face the senseless tragedy that befell Jerome Murdough.

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Eric Tars is a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

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