The Challenge: As stated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Governments have the responsibility to enact systems and controls that promote the progressive realization of these human rights – and that do not impede the progressive realization of human rights.
The Housing First (rapid re-housing) approach to ending family homelessness is based firmly on the human right to housing and provides a good example of what the “progressive realization” of human rights actually means. Partnering for Change believes that the “housing first” approach can provide a base for systems change and that human rights, specifically “the human right to housing,” can become a vital means to engage not only policy makers and local, state and national government, but also the electorate. This ongoing effort should be framed within a context based on, and informed by, the progressive realization of basic human rights as defined in The International Bill of Rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and Internal Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Partnering For Change will promote policy reform based on the human right to housing at two levels, through advocacy with key stakeholders and through advocacy among the electorate. Collaborative partners in these efforts will include the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Human Rights Network, based in Atlanta, GA.
HOUSING AS A “BASIC HUMAN RIGHT”
As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living. Within that right is the right to adequate housing. In 1996, the UN held a conference on human settlements, Habitat II, focusing on the human right to housing. The United States participated in the conference and signed the conference documents: the Habitat Agenda and Istanbul Declaration. While not treaties, and thus not binding, these documents outline commitments made by the signatory nations, and include sections focusing not just on housing but also specifically on homelessness. A joint Housing Rights Program, signaling increased UN focus on this right, was recently created by the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights and UN Habitat (the UN Human Settlements Programme, mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all”). In addition, the UN appointed a “special rapporteur” charged with monitoring and reporting on implementation of the right to adequate housing globally.
[The foto below shows the United Nations Special Rappatour for the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnick, with Tanya Tull on an official visit to review housing rights violations in the U.S. in 2009. They are interviewing a young homeless mother with infant, who is sitting on the bunkbed she pays $450 per month for in an illegal "underground shelter" for families in Los Angeles. Approximately 15-20 families were living there at the time, paying for bunkbeds in rooms shared with other families, with one small bathroom down a hall. The facility has since been closed down, but many others still exist, particularly in South L.A.]
What the right to housing means:
Human rights law defines the right to housing to consist of seven elements: legal security of tenure; availability of services, resources and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; and cultural adequacy. When a nation recognizes the right, it takes on four-fold obligation: to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the right. As defined in human rights law, the right to housing does not require nations to immediately ensure that the right is fulfilled; rather, it imposes an obligation on countries to “progressively” realize the right. This means that continuous progress be made to ensure that everyone has adequate housing – whether through private initiatives, government incentives, or direct government intervention.
The Habitat Agenda elaborates on the meaning of the right, stating “adequate shelter means more than a roof over one’s head.” It defines the concept of adequacy broadly to include proximity to work, social services and transportation. Placing housing in the larger context of economic and community development, it emphasizes the need for links between housing and jobs. The document also makes clear, consistent with developing international jurisprudence, that government recognition of the right to housing is not tantamount to government obligation to provide a home free of charge to everyone. Rather, the obligation of government is to pursue and promote policies that will promote housing rights through a mix of market and government forces.
The Habitat Agenda further states that government should provide direct assistance to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups (including homeless persons), promote supportive services for homeless people and members of other vulnerable groups, and address “the specific needs and circumstances of children, particularly street children.” It also states that homeless persons not be penalized for their status, specifically added to address the trend towards the “criminalization” of homelessness in many U.S.cities.
Two sisters with small children, including a newborn infant, lived in this substandard, vermin-infested motel room in South Central L.A. for more than a year, cooking on a hotplate or bringing in “fast food.” Unemployed and dependent upon welfare, the mothers paid $350 per month for the room and were unable to save the funds necessary to move into an apartment.