The Human Right to Housing

Housing and homelessness are human rights issues—and that can be an organizing strength.

Local Human Rights Advocacy

Human rights commitments apply not only to the federal government, but also to the state and local levels. In each of the following cases, NLCHP worked with the local groups to support their efforts.

In Chicago, the Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CPPH) lobbied the Cook County Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution endorsing the human right to housing, one of the first of its kind in the country. CPPH and others then used the resolution in their state budget advocacy, winning $14 million in rental subsidies to create 1,600 new affordable housing units for the residents of Cook County. By linking their lobbying to the county’s resolution on the right to housing, advocates created a framework that supported their request for an increase in state funding for subsidized housing and laid the groundwork for future advocacy efforts.

In Minneapolis, as in many cities, people without housing are subject to arrest for living in public places. In Minneapolis, between 2003 and 2007, over 100 homeless people living in public places were arrested under an “anti-lurking” ordinance; all of them were black. A local criminal justice advocate joked, “I’d like to talk about the racial disparity, but that requires at least two races being involved.”

In 2007, local advocates mounted a campaign to repeal the anti-lurking ordinance. They distributed flyers saying “You Have Fundamental Human Rights Under International Law: You are a human being. Your human rights cannot be taken away from you by the government.” This helped empower the homeless community to organize, and galvanized an education campaign to humanize homeless people with the general public. The advocates also gave testimony to the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism — an international expert on racial discrimination — during his official visit to the United States and let the city council know about this international interest.

The repeal effort ultimately lost by one vote. But following the human rights campaign, enforcement decreased to only four arrests in the months after the vote and arrests directed at homeless people remain down; instead, the police now work collaboratively with St. Stephen’s Human Services to dispatch housing outreach teams when they receive complaints regarding homeless persons. Over 300 persons have been placed into housing rather than receiving tickets since this program began.

In May 2010, Bill Tibbits from the Crossroads Urban Center and a small group of advocates in Salt Lake City mounted a human rights campaign to fight the city’s anti-camping ordinance. They got great press coverage, focusing attention on the human rights of people being penalized for sleeping in public even though they had no private place to do so. The following day, the police chief publicly thanked Tibbits for drawing attention to the issue and announced that the police would stop enforcing the city’s anti-camping ordinance. The police chief also mentioned he would ask city council to make some revisions to the ordinances. “I was not expecting that,” Tibbets said. Today, enforcement of the ordinance remains suspended, and the city has initiated a new program where police on bicycles actively engage people living on the street and provide available resources. Meanwhile, advocates are pressing the city to develop a more comprehensive, positive response to homelessness.

Human rights law treats housing rights and related human rights as interdependent, as demonstrated by this example from Sacramento, Calif. According to the Sacramento County “Street Count,” an annual homeless count report, 955 people slept outside on Jan. 27, 2011, due to lack of available shelter beds and affordable housing units. Safe Ground Sacramento, an informal organization of people living in temporary encampments, formed in 2009 in response to the government’s dismantling of tent cities and the continual harassment of homeless people. Safe Ground and Legal Services of Northern California participated in an official mission to the United States earlier this year by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation.

The expert’s report describes the conditions in the encampment, without access to clean water or sanitation, as “unacceptable, an affront to human dignity and a violation of human rights that may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” She concluded that, while more permanent housing solutions are sought, an immediate, interim solution is needed to ensure that the homeless have “access to restrooms facilities in public places, including during the night.” This visit both energized the Safe Ground members and received significant local media coverage, giving the advocates there another resource in their arsenal.

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