Geneva, Switzerland – On Thursday, March 13, the U.N. Human Rights Committee reviewed U.S. compliance with a major human rights treaty, raising concerns of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment for the practice of criminalizing homeless people for performing necessary life functions such as sleeping and eating in public when they have no private alternatives.
The criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. is documented in a report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading: Homelessness in the United States Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, submitted to the Committee by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (“NLCHP”) and the Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School.
The U.S. review, which takes place periodically under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the last review was in 2006), follows a U.S. report to the Committee, submitted on December 30, 2011.
“I appreciate that the federal government is acknowledging that the criminalization of people living on the street for everyday life activities, such as eating, sleeping, sitting in particular areas…raises serious human rights concerns…,” said Walter Kaelin, a Swiss member of the Committee, “There are ample reports about how criminalization of the homeless is discriminatory; how, as stressed by several UN Special Rapporteurs, and also federal agencies, how such instances of criminalization often raises concerns of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
Kaelin continued with specific questions, “Do you already provide, or do you plan to provide incentives for decriminalization? Do you plan to withdraw funding for local authorities that continue to criminalize the homeless in a discriminatory way, in a way that may amount to inhuman treatment, degrading treatment? Do you plan to sanction criminalization policies, or are your activities really limited just in sensitizing local authorities, something very important, but probably not sufficient.”
Rather than responding to the specific questions, Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, US Department of the Interior, responded with a general list of issues being worked on by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, including efforts to encourage cities not to criminalize homelessness, exactly the sort of efforts the Committee said were “important, but not sufficient”.
“The U.S. government knew these topics would be on the Committee’s agenda since last March, when they put it on their list of issues for discussion, and last July, we held a meeting to discuss specific recommendations for action,” said Jeremy Rosen, Policy Director at NLCHP, in Geneva for the review. “The lack of specificity in the government’s response is pretty disappointing.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker continued on behalf of the U.S. delegation by explaining his city’s more constructive approach of providing housing rather than criminalizing, which has led to a 75% decline in chronic homelessness in the state. The mayor said this makes him “surprised when he hears homeless even in the same breath as criminalization.”
However, as documented in the report submitted to the Committee by NLCHP , Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading: Homelessness in the United States Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights-one of the “ample reports” of criminalization to which Kaelin referred-the approach demonstrated by Salt Lake City is far from universally implemented.
“As homelessness becomes more visible in American communities, some, like Salt Lake City, have made generally positive responses,” said Mr. Rosen. “Unfortunately, we’ve also seen an increase in communities passing ordinances banning camping or sleeping outdoors, despite providing no alternative, forcing people to make the cruel choice between sleep and being arrested.”
“Sleep deprivation and hunger are widely recognized as techniques that are cruel, inhuman and degrading when used against prisoners. It shouldn’t matter if the prison is bricks and mortar, or one of economic policies and draconian ordinances,” said Eric Tars, Director of Human Rights and Children’s Rights Programs at NLCHP. “As Committee Member Kaelin stated, the federal action on this issue so far is ‘not sufficient,’ and our government must do more to protect homeless people from these policies.”
“We expected more concrete responses from the federal government at this review,” Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director at NLCHP, concluded. “But we look forward to working with the government on additional-and stronger– measures in response to the concerns and questions raised by the Committee.”
The Committee will issue its final recommendations to the U.S. government, called Concluding Observations, on March 26.