I Believe in Human Rights: Homelessness- Torture on the Streets of America

If I told you someone was forced to sleep on a cold, concrete slab; kicked and humiliated; exposed to the elements; threatened by law enforcement; attacked by dogs; didn’t know when they would get their next meal; and generally were deprived of their basic human dignity, would you be able to say whether I was talking about an abused prisoner, or a person living on the streets of America?

So why is it that when a government allows these conditions to happen to one of these victims, it’s a human rights abuse, but when it happens to the other, it’s just a question of economic policy? The outcome is the same: degraded people who feel that humanity has abandoned them. Homelessness is a human rights violation, and as Americans, we should feel the same outrage that torture is being committed, whether it’s in a war on foreign soil or on the streets of America.

I am lucky to be able to make reframing homelessness as a human rights issue my full-time job, as the Director of Human Rights & Children’s Rights Programs at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, an organization which has been leading this movement for more than two decades. It’s  my professional calling, but also a personal mission for me: my father grew up as a refugee following World War II, experiencing hunger and homelessness as his family moved across post-war Europe before re-settling in the U.S. So I know that when parents have to tell their kids they’re losing their home, or don’t have enough to eat, that’s a form of mental torture too. Whether being forced into homelessness because of an actual war, or because of a long-term economic war against poor people, I want to apply the universal standards that say housing is a human right here at home, just as we promote them abroad.

 In my time working on this issue, we’ve seen tremendous movement forward in how our Federal agencies are approaching homelessness. In 2010, President Obama called it “simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s Veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country,” reflecting this sense of moral outrage. In 2011, the U.S. accepted UN Human Rights Council recommendations to improve access to affordable housing and protect the rights of homeless persons. In 2012, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness and Department of Justice stated criminalization of homelessness may violate both our constitutional and human rights treaty obligations. This year, we engaged USICH and its member agencies as the UN Human Rights Committee inquired about criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. to talk about concrete steps the government can take to stop these violations.

But there’s more that can, and must be done. We at the Law Center are leaders in the Human Rights at Home Campaign, made up of advocates working across issue areas to ensure accountability to human rights standards at the Federal, State, and local levels. We need the conversation about human rights happening at all these levels to be turned into policies that will improve the lives of all Americans.

As President Obama said, we must make homelessness “simply unacceptable.” In Scotland, they have a legally-enforceable obligation to house every homeless person. They don’t accept homelessness, and have put in place the policies and resources to make sure it doesn’t happen. We can do the same here.

Whether a prisoner in a foreign land, a refugee like my father, or a person living on the streets, everyone deserves their basic human dignity, and everyone deserves a government that makes ensuring this dignity its highest priority. This is what human rights means to me.