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U.S. Cities Criminalize Homelessness, Violate Human Rights Agreements

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The challenges poor and homeless Americans often face accessing clean drinking water and restroom facilities violate international human rights standards, according to a report issued by a United Nations investigator this month.

Catarina de Albuquerque, a U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, visited the United States in late February at the invitation of the U.S. government.
She found homeless individuals around the country not only struggle to access running water and restroom facilities but increasingly face criminal and civil sanctions when they improvise solutions.

The right to safe drinking water and restroom facilities is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The U.N. report's findings detail just a few of the ways that U.S. cities and counties are failing to meet these obligations because of how they opt to deal with homelessness, said Eric Tars, human rights program director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

The most recent federal homeless count data available is from January 2010. It shows there were 700,000 individuals in the U.S. who were homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development report found that homelessness grew very little between 2009 and 2010. But the share of families who lack a place to sleep continued the rapid expansion that began during the recession. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of homeless families grew by 20 percent.

The nation's elevated unemployment rate and the large number of foreclosures have increased demand just as municipal and state budget problems have led to a reduction in services available to the poor and homeless. As a result, many communities -- in particular suburban communities where services for the homeless are often nonexistent -- are confronting an increasingly visible homeless population forced to sleep in city parks or take up residence in one of a growing number of tent cities, Tars said.

Some cities have begun to regulate tent cities issuing temporary permits that allow churches or other organizations to host the homeless for few months. But in many more cities, developers, business district boosters and city councils have clashed with the homeless, encouraging police to issue more frequent tickets for violations such as sleeping in public, loitering, littering or public urination and defecation, Tars said.

This year, in Sacramento, Calif., city efforts to discourage homeless individuals and families from taking shelter in a growing tent city have included shutting off the water supply to nearby a fountain and locking or removing public restroom facilities, he said. A spokesperson for the city of Sacramento did not immediately return request for comment Friday.

In 2009, Sacramento drew national attention when the "Oprah Winfrey Show" aired a segment describing the number of newly homeless people moving into that city's homeless encampments, said Amy Williams, spokeswoman for the city manager's office. But the city has not had problems with homeless individuals misusing public facilities and has not shuttered restrooms of cut water to fountains, she said. In 2009, Sacramento did temporarily close its park restrooms because of a budget problem. At that time, at least one city park's restrooms were not reopened due to community complaints about the homeless, the Sacramento Press reported.

In 2009, a Gainesville, Fla., a developer convinced the city to begin enforcing a nearly 20-year-old ordinance barring some social service agencies from distributing more than 130 meals per day. For two years, one downtown shelter was forced to turn homeless individuals away from its soup kitchen line. The city changed the policy this month to allow soup kitchens to serve an unlimited number of meals during a limited number of hours each day.

In 2007 Los Angeles began an initiative to reduce crime downtown, leading police to issue thousands of citations to homeless individuals for things such as flicking the ash from a cigarette onto the sidewalk (cited as littering) to urinating or drinking in public, said Tars. Those citations have been overwhelmingly issued to poor and homeless black people, he said. When downtown art gallery crawls bring to the area upper-income city residents who frequently walk from one gallery to another with full wine glasses in hand, police do not take action, he said.

In 2009, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty issued a study of the crackdown and others like it around the country that named Los Angeles the No. 1 "meanest city" for its treatment of the homeless. A spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the report "short-sighted and misleading" at the time, Reuters reported.

"Rather than doing good things like providing more housing, more shelter, more assistance, cities are using these measures to push problems out of view," said Tars.

Tars said the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is planning a series of cases to challenge ordinances that criminalize activities -- such as using the restroom, sleeping or accessing water -- that can not be avoided or handled in private if a person is homeless.

"What this [U.N.] report will allow us to do is go into court and argue that these laws violate international standards and amount to what a U.N. investigator said was cruel and unusual punishment," Tars said.

This article has been updated to include comment from the Sacramento City Manager's Office.

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