I Believe in Human Rights: Homelessness is Criminal—People Experiencing Homelessness Are Not

My family suffered terribly during the German occupation of Greece during World War II. Growing up in New York City, I heard my parents’ stories of starvation, deprivation and loss—as well as courageous resistance. I was inspired to use the relative privilege of my own life to fight for a world where no one has to suffer the injustice of dire poverty. Law is a powerful tool, and I chose it as my path to make positive change. It led me to found the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Human rights law is especially powerful, because it starts from the premise that all human beings have basic rights. It recognizes that everyone has a right to the basics of human life: adequate housing, food, health care, work. It recognizes that everyone has the right to basic human dignity. Homelessness itself violates these fundamental rights—criminalizing it is even worse.

Imagine you’ve lost your job, been evicted from your home, exhausted your ability to stay with friends or family. You applied for housing assistance but the waiting list is years long. You’ve tried to get into a shelter but it was full. Now you’ve found a secluded spot in a door way, a park or with a group of other homeless folks in the woods.

Your human rights have already been violated. Your country has the resources to ensure that there’s enough affordable housing for everyone but it simply does not make this a priority. The U.S. government should be allocating more money for low-income housing, not cutting those funds. As a result, these resources—which could have helped you in your time of need—are not available.

Now imagine that, on top of this, the police are coming after you. You are violating a law against sleeping in public. If you cover yourself with a blanket you are violating a prohibition on “camping.” If you ask a fellow human being for help you are violating a law against “panhandling.” You get arrested. Now you have a police record. You try getting a job, renting an apartment, applying for public benefits. It is even harder than it already was.

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are not imaginary; they are being played out across the country as many cities respond to homelessness by trying to “sweep” the people who are suffering from it out of sight or out of town. According to our most recent report, from 2009 to 2011, prohibitions on panhandling and sleeping in public increased by 7 percent, and loitering laws increased by 10 percent.

This is simply wrong. Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to end it, and it makes it harder for people to escape it. Instead of helping, such policies add to the burdens of people struggling to get on their feet; and instead of helping to end homelessness, they may well increase it. Criminalizing homelessness wastes community resources that could and should be spent on real solutions such as affordable housing. It raises constitutional concerns, and courts have stepped in to strike down some city efforts. And criminalizing homelessness raises human rights concerns—and may violate US human rights treaty obligations. We’re glad that the USICH and the US Department of Justice have stated their agreement with us in their important report on the topic—and we await their response to our recommendations for concrete steps to implement it.

Human rights principles, laws and authorities came about following the suffering of WWII. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that my own personal connection to human rights traces its origins there as well. One of my most vivid memories from my family’s stories is this: there was plenty of food in the country side, but the bombed railroad lines meant it couldn’t get to the cities, where people were literally starving to death in the streets.

Now, people are suffering here in the U.S. despite our county’s wealth. Is it really so different?