United Nations Hosts Virtual Event on Decriminalization of Homelessness and Poverty

The 56th session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council held a virtual event, “Breaking the Cycle: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness and Poverty,” on June 25. The event was guided by a joint study that was released recently on the decriminalization of homelessness and poverty.

The discussion included several panelists:

  • Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.
  • Mr. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
  • Ms. Zione Ntaba, Judge of the High Court of Malawi.
  • Ms. Annie Hudson-Price, Office for Access to Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Mr. Rob Robinson, community organizer and activist.
  • Ms. Sandra Epal-Ratjen, International Commission of Jurists.

The panelists were joined by moderator Ms. Leah Conklin, advocacy director with The International Legal Foundation. Ms. Conklin began the webinar by setting the tone for the call, stressing to participants that the criminalization of homelessness and poverty is a violation of human rights. Each panelist then had a few minutes to share their work on the decriminalization of homelessness.

Mr. De Schutter, a rapporteur on the joint study, began the conversation by detailing the findings and recommendations of the report. The study finds that criminalization laws are increasing worldwide, and Mr. De Schutter noted that criminalization not only violates someone’s right to life and dignity but also leads to harassment from law enforcement and negative long-term consequences. The study recommends repealing these laws and ensuring that people experiencing homelessness have access to alternatives, equal access to public spaces, guiding regulations for public space access, and that housing programs promote the importance of Housing First.

Mr. Rajagopal was the second rapporteur on the joint study. A professor of law and development with expertise in the right to housing, Mr. Rajagopal spoke about evidence that the criminalization of homelessness is not effective. He noted that criminalization is a double punishment that penalizes people by punishing them for being homeless and then punishing them again by putting them in jail. He also noted that there need to alternatives to creating more shelters, since shelters do not provide adequate housing to those in need. Mr. Rajagopal closed his comments by underscoring the importance of changing the culture of those in positions of power and law enforcement.

Justice Ntaba drew from her experience working in the justice system of Malawi. She detailed the important intersection of criminalization, privacy, economic development, and freedom of movement. She implored other judges, lawyers, and people in the legal profession to be as inclusive as possible in their activities and to work beyond the courts to correct the injustices they see in the court room.

Joining the call from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Ms. Hudson-Price talked about her work with the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ). ATJ has sought in recent years to ensure all communities in the U.S. have access to the promises and protections of the law. She specifically mentioned the work of the office to address the fines and fees imposed by courts and legislatures on people experiencing homelessness. In April 2023, DOJ sent out a Dear Colleague Letter to other U.S. Courts and followed up that letter with a report that November highlighting the impact of fees, which led to reforms in some jurisdictions. In addition to this work, DOJ has filed multiple amicus briefs against laws criminalizing homelessness – most recently, in the Grants Pass v. Oregon case. Ms. Hudson-Price recognized that while much work has already been done, there is still a long way to go.

Mr. Robinson, an organizer and activist, attested to the dehumanizing behavior that people experience every day when they are homeless. As a person with lived experience, Mr. Robinson spoke about the necessity of including people with lived experience in these discussions. He detailed his experience living in a shelter in New York City for 10 months and how he used that experience to voice his expertise on homelessness issues and advocate for change at every level of government. He also noted his joy in teaching future generations about the importance of this work at the Parsons New School University.

Representing the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Ms. Ratjen detailed a report released by ICJ in 2023 that laid out a set of legal principles addressing the criminalization of homelessness. She outlined the three main parts of the study: the basic principles of basic law, the application of a human rights approach to those laws, and how to use these approaches when addressing the criminalization of homelessness. Ms. Ratjen also noted that the ICJ is working to move the report into the mainstream by working with judges, prosecutors, and lawyers in multiple countries to spread awareness.

The panelists concluded their discussion by analyzing the argument that criminalization laws are created under the guise of public safety. They argued that these laws usually stem from a sense of elitism and a dislike of people experiencing poverty. It is important to challenge this argument, especially since there are only limited data to support it. Ultimately, poverty is at the core of the issue, and addressing the needs of the lowest-income people is essential. 

The timeliness of the webinar cannot be overstated, especially given the recent ruling of the Supreme Court in Grants Pass v. Oregon, which permits local and state governments to arrest and ticket individuals for sleeping outside. As advocacy efforts continue globally to address criminalization laws, the ruling serves as a crucial reminder that such issues are occurring in our own community.

Read the U.N. Human Rights Council’s joint study on the criminalization of homelessness here.