The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (Law Center) released, “Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading: Homelessness in the United States under the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights,” on September 3. The report was co-authored with the Yale Law School Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, and was prepared in response to a question from the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Committee, as part of a review of the United States’ (U.S.) compliance with internationally established human rights obligations.
The U.N. review will occur on October 17 and 18, and the Law Center will be holding a webinar focused on the report on October 7 at 2 pm ET.
The report’s authors find that “criminalization of homelessness, or penalizing homeless persons for basic life activities, such as sleeping, sitting, eating, or even going to the bathroom in public when they have no private alternatives, or targeting homeless persons for enforcement of other laws like jaywalking or littering, violates numerous rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty ratified by the U.S. in 1992.”
The authors make the following recommendations to the United States Government to address the violations:
- The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) should publicly oppose specific local criminalization measures, as well as inform local governments of their obligations to respect the rights of homeless individuals.
- The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) should investigate and challenge particular instances of local and state criminalization measures.
- DOJ and HUD should better structure their funding by including specific questions in requests for funding proposals and giving points to applicants who create constructive alternatives to homelessness, while subtracting points from applicants who continue to criminalize homelessness.
- DOJ should include people experiencing homelessness as a monitored class in its collection of hate crimes statistics, in order to better understand and address the violence perpetuated against them.
- HUD should take additional steps to ensure PHAs use their discretion to accept people with criminal histories unless federal law requires their exclusion.
- DOJ should encourage state and local governments to remove burdensome fines imposed through criminalization measures and eliminate imprisonment of homeless individuals when they are unable to pay such penalties.
- DOJ and HUD should work with local authorities to cease sweeps of outdoor encampments and instead to ensure homeless residents are provided with adequate alternative housing. If sweeps are deemed to serve proportional government goals, the authorities should at a minimum ensure sufficient prior notice and collection of personal belongings, with clear policies for retention and retrieval in a manner reasonably accessible to homeless persons.
- HUD should enforce the HEARTH Act’s provisions prohibiting family separation in homeless shelters.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should work with Congress to change the laws governing federal financing of the child welfare system to allow states to keep families together and safe, and should assist families in meeting their children’s basic needs rather than removing children from their homes and penalizing the homelessness of their parents.
- HHS should continue to work to prevent state child welfare workers from removing children from the home solely due to homelessness or poverty, and instead focus on programs providing services and assistance to prevent homelessness and the resulting family separation in the first place.
- DOJ should continue to challenge legislation requiring identification for voting, and issue guidance promoting policies to enable homeless people to register to vote despite their lack of a permanent place of residence.