On Thursday, March 13, in Geneva Switzerland, 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.
“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”.
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, one of the “ample reports” of criminalization to which Kaelin referred-the approach demonstrated by Salt Lake City is far from universally implemented.
“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.” said Jeremy Rosen, Policy Director at NLCHP, in Geneva for the review.
“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.”
The Committee will issue its final recommendations to the U.S. government, called Concluding Observations, on March 26.