Leading By Example on Human Rights of People Experiencing Homelessness
Once every four years, the U.N. Human Rights Council reviews the human rights record of each of its member countries through the Universal Periodic Review. This review allows countries to showcase on a global stage the actions they have taken to improve access to human rights. As part of the process, last month in Geneva, the U.S. government reiterated its commitment to helping communities pursue alternatives to criminalizing homelessness.
The U.S. government expressed its commitment to helping communities pursue alternatives to criminalizing homelessness in response to the Human Rights Council’s recommendation to “amend laws that criminalize homelessness, and which are not in conformity with international human rights instruments.” That commitment signals to the world our country’s belief that communities should turn towards alternatives to criminalization rather than spending resources on practices that are not cost-effective and don’t end homelessness.
The criminalization of homelessness has been a hot-button topic recently, with more communities taking steps to put laws in place that criminalize daily activities of people who live on the streets – activities like sitting or lying down in public, food sharing, and sleeping in cars, among others. But there has also been a ground-swell of activity to combat the criminalization of homelessness.
Over the past year, Federal agencies have taken concrete steps to help communities implement alternatives to criminalization:
- The Department of Justice put enforcement power behind longstanding Federal policy against criminalization of homelessness by filing a statement of interest brief in a case opposing a Boise, ID, anti-camping ordinance brought by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), Idaho Legal Aid Services, and Latham & Watkins LLP. The brief has received extensive media attention, including an editorial against criminalization by the Washington Post. The Justice Department is also planning on issuing more guidance against criminalization to law enforcement agencies through an upcoming newsletter.
- HUD has included a scoring incentive for communities to implement specific strategies that prevent or reduce the criminalization of homelessness within the 2015 Continuum of Care Program Competition. The agency has also created a new alternatives to criminalizing homelessness page on their website and issued In Focus guidance on the case against criminalization. In addition, HUD hosted an interagency consultation to discuss implementation of the 2010 round of Review recommendations earlier this year.
- USICH recently issued new guidance on effective solutions for ending homelessness for people living in encampments. The guidance emphasizes that the forced dispersal of people from encampments is not an appropriate solution and can make it more difficult to help people achieve lasting housing and service outcomes. This guidance builds on Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness, released by USICH in 2012.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently used the Department of Justice’s brief in the Boise case as an example that Norway could follow to protect minorities experiencing homelessness in their country. Such action are proof positive that the steps we are taking to address homelessness in ways that promote, protect, and respect human rights matter, not just in the U.S., but around the globe.
Eric Tars is Senior Attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Liz Osborn is a Management & Program Analyst for USICH.