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USA: “Moving away from the criminalization of homelessness, a step in the right direction”

GENEVA (23 April 2012) – Three United Nations human rights experts on extreme poverty, housing, and water and sanitation* welcomed a groundbreaking federal report in the United States of America which recognizes that the criminalization of homelessness may violate the human rights of homeless persons.

The study by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Justice condemns the criminalization of homelessness and recommends effective alternative practices and policies to reduce and prevent homelessness.

“This report could generate a tangible difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands homeless Americans,” the experts stressed. “By identifying viable and effective alternative practices and policies, it will not only assist the US Government in complying with its international human rights obligations, but also in addressing the root causes of homelessness.”

Measures criminalizing ‘acts of living’ related to homelessness, such as sleeping, eating, panhandling, urinating or conducting personal hygiene in public spaces, may violate international human rights law, and are ineffective in addressing homelessness, the study found. It also calls on states and the federal government to adopt constructive alternatives to criminalization, designed with the participation of homeless persons and relevant communities.

“This is a significant step in the right direction,” the UN independent experts said. “We urge both federal and state governments to take the additional necessary steps to repeal criminalizing laws and regulations and to harness available resources to make these constructive alternatives a reality.”

In a recent report to the UN General Assembly (October 2011), the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, warned that States are increasingly adopting laws and regulations that penalize people living in poverty, undermining their enjoyment of human rights.

“These measures have been implemented in a context in which the economic and financial crises have resulted in an unprecedented increase in foreclosures and evictions, forcing a growing number of individuals and families to live on the streets,” she said. “I encourage the US authorities to do more to prevent homelessness and repeal any law that disproportionately penalizes those living in poverty in all states.”
Check the full report on extreme poverty and human rights

Both the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Raquel Rolnik, and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, addressed this issue in their USA mission reports.

“Many cities that do not provide enough affordable housing and shelters are resorting to the criminal justice system to punish people living on the streets,” Ms. Rolnik warned. “Lack of access to affordable housing is the main cause of homelessness, and I am pleased to hear that the US federal Government is willing to take steps to address this issue.”
USA / Housing (2009) - Read the full report by the Special Rapporteur

“In my interaction with various Governmental authorities, I have stressed repeatedly that evacuation of the bowels and bladder is a necessary biological function and that denial of opportunities to do so in a lawful and dignified manner can compromise human dignity and cause suffering,” Ms. de Albuquerque recalled. “Such denial could, in some cases, amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

“In the context of lack of affordable and adequate housing options, an immediate and interim solution for those without housing is to ensure access to restroom facilities in public places, including during the night.”
USA / Water & sanitation (2011) - Read the full report by the Special Rapporteur

(*) Magdalena Sepúlveda (Chile) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in May 2008 by the UN Human Rights Council.

Raquel Rolnik (Brazil) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context by the UN Human Rights Council in May 2008.

Catarina de Albuquerque (Portugal) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation in September 2008.

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