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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A matter of Human Rights and Care: Homelessness

Notes from a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s paper exploring ways in which homelessness critically affects human beings’ ability to enjoy basic rights and freedoms (Though the document pertains to Australia’s homelessness, its findings and ideas are current, critical and universal)
Excerpt, editing by Carolyn Bennett

Without anchor, connectedness 

People experiencing homelessness face violations of a wide range of human rights. Though access to safe and secure housing is one of the most basic human rights, homelessness is not just about housing. Homelessness, fundamentally, is about lack of connectedness: with family, friends, the community; and lack of control over one’s environment. 

A person who is homeless may face violations of ─ 

[t]he right to an adequate standard of living,
[t]he right to education,
[t]he right to liberty and security of the person,
[t]he right to privacy, the right to social security,
[t]he right to freedom from discrimination,
[t]he right to vote, and many more. 

These human rights are protected by a number of international human rights treaties, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). 


Homelessness has been “defined as ‘inadequate access to safe and secure housing,’ [existing] where the only housing to which a person has access ─ 

Is likely to damage the person’s health
Threatens the person’s safety
Marginalizes the person by failing to provide access to adequate personal amenities or the normal economic and social support of a home, or
Places the person in circumstances that threaten or adversely affect the adequacy, safety, security and affordability of that housing


Just as there are many different ways in which a person can be affected by homelessness, there are many different causes of homelessness.  

Poverty and the inability to afford adequate housing are central to the causes of homelessness. These circumstances may result from a variety of experiences including long-term or short-term unemployment, debt and other financial pressures, and housing market pressures such as rising rental and house prices and the lack of public housing. 

Financial difficulty is often accompanied by other personal or family problems such as family breakdown, domestic violence, poor physical and mental health, substance and other addictions. 

The inability to cope with combinations of these problems can push individuals and families even closer to the edge. 

Even before people become homeless, they may be living at the margins of the society with few connections to family and the community. Social isolation can mean that they lack the necessary support to assist them through periods of stress and help them manage ongoing problems.


Though homelessness affects a wide range of people from different regions, of different ages and different cultural backgrounds, some groups of people are particularly at risk of becoming homeless, disproportionately affected by homelessness 

Women are significantly affected by homelessness
Indigenous people are disproportionately affected
Children and young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness
People with mental illness are disproportionately affected by homelessness
Refugees and asylum seekers are disproportionately affected by homelessness

Homelessness impact on housing right 

The right to housing is more than simply a right to shelter; it is a right to have somewhere to live that is adequate. Housing adequacy depends on a range of factors─ 

Legal security of tenure
Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure
Cultural adequacy

Homelessness impact on health right

All people including children have the right to enjoy the highest possible standard of health and homelessness is naturally associated with poor health.

Some health problems can cause a person to become homeless: poor physical or mental health can reduce a person’s ability to find employment or earn an adequate income.  

Some health problems are consequences of homelessness: depression, poor nutrition, poor dental care, substance abuse, mental health problems. Homeless people also experience significantly higher rates of death, disability and chronic illness than others in the general population.  

Homelessness exacerbates and complicates the treatment of many health problems: because of financial hardship, lack of transportation to medical facilities, lack of identification or Medicare Card, difficulty maintaining appointments or treatment regimes ─.homeless people have significantly less access to health services than people in the broader population. 

Homelessness impact on personal safety right 

All people have the right to liberty and security of the person but the physical safety of homeless people is often under constant threat. Lacking a safe living environment, homeless people are more vulnerable to crime and personal attacks. 

I lived in constant fear of violence. There was no door I could lock to separate me from the rest of the world. There was no safe place for me to just be, a kid on the street tells researchers 

Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to attacks on their personal safety and human rights law recognizes their right to special protection from sexual and other abuse.   

Homeless women are also at greater risk of violence and sexual abuse and are often forced into harmful situations and relationships out of need.

Homelessness impact on privacy right 

All people have the right to protection against arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy but homeless people may be forced to carry out their personal activities in public – sleeping, urinating, washing and eating – activities that most people are able to do in the privacy of their own homes. 

People living in homeless shelters or boarding houses may be required to share facilities with others, which may also threaten their right to privacy.

Homelessness impact on education right 

Education is a basic human right and every child should have access to government-ensured primary education and vocational education. Financial difficulty and insecure housing conditions make it hard for homeless people to access education and training facilities on a sustained basis.  

In addition to problems meeting costs, such as for books, clothes, social activities, associated with education, many homeless people are forced to frequently move around; and this causes disruptions in schooling and difficulty making friends and connections. For many children and young people, school is an experience of marginalization. 

The education system in high school is geared to [the] situation of being at home with a family, whereas with me I don’t have that family support, either financially or emotionally, and I sort of feel like a square peg in a round hole, a child tells researchers.  

I was away from school most of the time. I got so behind. I didn’t know what I was doing so I just left.

Homelessness impact on work right 

The right to work means all people must have the opportunity to gain a living by work that they have freely chosen or accepted.  

You can’t get a job if you [have] got nowhere to sleep… Looking like ‘foreman material’ is not easy when you are sleeping out or in squats with no amenities like running water or electricity, a potential workers and homeless person tells researchers.

Homelessness impact on non-discrimination right 

The right to be treated equally by the law and to be free from discrimination is a fundamental human right but people experiencing homelessness face persistent stigmatization and discrimination in a range of different contexts.  

Together with discrimination in access to health care, education and employment, discrimination against homeless people also occurs in situations where certain laws operate in a manner that disadvantages homeless people, compared to other people in society: laws that include (but are not limited to) rules governing eligibility for social security and voting; laws that criminalize the doing of certain activities in public space.

Homelessness impact on social security right 

The human right to social security imposes an obligation on government to provide welfare necessary for subsistence to people who are unable to support themselves.  

Strict requirements often disproportionately burden homeless people who often do not have and cannot afford to obtain a birth certificate or other documents that prove their identity or cannot make interviews or reply to correspondence; and without these, homeless people are threatened with denial or termination of benefits.

Homeless people often have difficulty in complying with conditions or entitlement requirements because of poor literacy, problems receiving mail, and needing to give priority to more immediate pressures in their life, such as finding a place to sleep. 

Homelessness impact on freedom of movement and freedom of association rights

Many cities and sectors allow police to ban, push or direct individuals or groups to move on from public areas. This usually happens where the presence of the person or group is considered by the police to be disorderly, obstructing, threatening, or negative in some other way with regard to other members of the public. Young people and homeless people are particularly and disproportionately affected by these laws since they have no other place to relax or to socialize and therefore they use public space more than others.

Where the use of these police powers goes beyond what is necessary for protecting the rights of others, the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of association may be breached.

Homelessness impact on freedom of expression right

It may be argued that begging is the expression of poverty and disadvantage.  Often begging is the only way ─ and is usually a last resort ─ to express poverty and disadvantage. But anti-begging laws criminalize this form of expression and undermine the right to freedom of expression. Fining people for such activity aggravates the causes that underlie it. 

All people have the right to freedom of expression. This right includes the right to seek, receive and communicate information and ideas of all kinds, either orally, in writing, in the form of art, or through any other chosen media. 

Homelessness impact on freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment right 

Laws which criminalize essential human behaviors connected to being homeless ─ sleeping, bathing, urinating, or storing belongings in public ─ may violate the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  Such criminalization punishes homeless people on the basis of their status; not because of their conduct.  

Homelessness is an involuntary status when there is insufficient accommodation to support homeless people; therefore, homeless people are involuntarily forced to break the law as they have no alternative but to perform these acts in public.

Since human rights belong to all people, it is in the interests of a country’s community as a whole to guarantee protection of and respect for the rights of all people.

Human Rights approach helping address homelessness

Recognizes that effect of homelessness on a person’s ability to enjoy basic rights and freedoms has critical consequences for the way society perceives and treats homeless people.

Acknowledges that homelessness is more than just a housing issue and that addressing homelessness requires a comprehensive and integrated approach that takes into account its many and varied causes and effects. 

Departs from a welfare approach to homelessness by demonstrating that homeless people are not mere objects of charity seeking help and compassion; they are individuals who are entitled under international law to protection and promotion of their human rights. 

Highlights the need to directly and meaningfully involve homeless people in the development of solutions to homelessness this based on the premise that the active and informed participation of homeless people will likely result in creating more effective and relevant services that meet the needs of the homeless. 

Involves government at all levels to actualize their commitment and undertake concrete and targeted legislative, policy and budgetary steps toward full and immediate realization of the human rights of homeless people.

Sources and notes

“Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue” (2008), available for Download Word (60 kb), Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, http://www.hreoc.gov.au/human_rights/housing/homelessness_2008.html

A paper exploring the many ways that homelessness impacts on a person’s ability to enjoy basic rights and freedoms. The paper shows that homelessness is more than just a housing issue.

Homelessness is about human rights.

Homeless people are not merely objects of charity, seeking help and compassion …, they are individuals entitled to the protection and promotion of their human rights.

Since human rights belong to everyone, it is in the interests of the Australian community as a whole to ensure that the rights of homeless people are respected and protected. 

Australian Human Rights Commission  

The Australian Human Rights Commission is the name of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. An independent statutory organization reporting to the federal Parliament through the Attorney-General, the Commission was established in 1986 by an act of the federal Parliament. 

Its vision:  Human rights: everyone, everywhere, everyday 

Its mission: Leading the promotion and protection of human rights in Australia by: 

Making human rights values part of everyday life and language;

Empowering all people to understand and exercise their human rights;

Working with individuals, community, business and government to inspire action;

Keeping government accountable to national and international human rights standards;

Securing an Australian charter of rights, http://www.hreoc.gov.au/about/index.html

Stop Criminalizing Homelessness, http://news.change.org/stories/5-things-you-should-know-about-homelessness
Homelessness in the United States, http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/human-rights-facts-144-homelessness-in-the-u-s-in-2008/
Shelter is a right, http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2008/05/07/human-rights-facts-7/
Homeless is not a crime, http://leedamiller.wordpress.com/category/our-forgotten-neighbors/
Please have change ready for homeless, Homelessness in Toronto | P.a.p.-Blog, Human Rights Etc
405 x 330 | 34.6 KB, filipspagnoli.wordpress.com

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