I Want to Believe in Human Rights: Our Only Hope to End Homelessness

I’m one of those guys who wears his heart on his lapel and his bumper. Prominently displayed “Health Care is a Human Right” button: check. “Housing is Health Care and Both are Human Rights” bumper sticker from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council: check.  Once there was a time when I had so many of those buttons in my desk drawer that whenever anyone admired the one I was wearing I immediately moved it from my lapel to theirs and replaced my own when I got back to the office. I was a zealous evangelist of the human rights gospel.  

So imagine my alarm when a few weeks ago I felt compelled to remove my lapel pin and place it back in the drawer for safe keeping. I was reading an online news article about a city council attempt to tighten what’s already among the toughest anti-begging laws on the books, when, in the accompanying photo, I recognized with a modicum of pride a Health Care for the Homeless social work intern protesting outside City Hall with a “Housing is a Human Right” sign.  A local student group had joined with people experiencing homelessness to work against the latest volley of restrictive panhandling legislation. Against my better judgment, my eyes fell to the bottom of the screen to read the string of “drive-by,” anonymously-posted ad hominems and non sequiturs that so often accompany 21st Century reporting.

“Drew57” posted one of the first comments – a “note to the kid holding the sign” – asserting definitively that housing was “not,” in fact, “a human right,” before musing that officials should simply say no to the “Marxists and lazy bums that cripple the city.”  

Normally, I’d chalk up such a comment to what my coworker labels an irrelevant data point and move on, but for some reason this one gave me pause. Unfounded stereotypes aside, I had to concede the first point to our drive-by interlocutor. He’s correct. Housing isn’t a human right in the United States. And we needn’t look far for proof of it: Decades-long waiting lists for subsidized housing; a HUD budget that’s roughly 40% of what it was more than three decades ago; a private housing market that prices out families earning more than twice our meager federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The very persistence of contemporary homelessness – at levels unseen since the Great Depression – affirms the troubling absence of such a right.

“Nor is health care,” chimed in Oz321. This one particularly stung, but score another for our nameless commentators. (And here’s the point at which I removed my lapel button.) Don’t get me wrong: we’ve done great things with the Affordable Care Act: No more exclusions for pre-existing conditions; subsidies to lower the cost of coverage; and the most significant expansion of Medicaid since the program was created in 1965 – particularly beneficial for people experiencing homelessness. But nothing we’ve yet accomplished has made health care a right. Undocumented people: Nothing. Low-income Americans living in half the states that still haven’t expanded Medicaid: Zip. Folks that still can’t afford private-sector coverage: Sorry. Some analysts project that even after full implementation of the Affordable Care Act as many as 30 million people may go without coverage. And, much to the horror of our industrialized neighbors, health problems can still lead to personal bankruptcy and homelessness. So by my count that’s at least 30,000,001 reasons we can’t yet consider health care a human right.

Last month I stood at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day to remember 105 people who died prematurely in 2013 without a stable place to call “home.” They joined a list of thousands commemorated in similar services across the country.  I couldn’t help but think of the “inalienable rights” a small band of American revolutionaries envisioned more than two hundred years ago: Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Clearly the people whose memories we honored on December 21 were alienated even from these most basic of rights.  I can think of no more foundational a way to secure them than to enact public policies that guarantee each of us access to comprehensive health care, decent and affordable housing, and wages high enough to keep us out of homeless shelters.    

You might say I believe in the idea of human rights if not the timeless existence of them. For our friends and neighbors experiencing homelessness, claims of “human rights” ring hollow when we haven’t yet enacted and enforced the public policies necessary to attain them. Indeed, a human rights approach to public policy – applied universally – is perhaps our only hope of ending homelessness for good. (And, please, let’s hurry up about it. It’s been so many years that I don’t even want to think about what it’ll take to peel that sticker off my bumper.)