Last week, the United States government filed its official response to the recommendations it received from the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of its first-ever comprehensive human rights review.
For advocates working to end homelessness here in the U.S., it was a landmark occasion. The response marks the first time that the U.S. has acknowledged that homelessness at home implicates the nation's human rights obligations.
Now the challenge is to turn that statement into action.
It's a critical time to do so. Recent studies show a dramatic rise in homelessness -- especially family homelessness -- in the wake of the recession and the foreclosure crisis. In 2010 alone, family homelessness increased by an average of 9 percent in cities across the country, and more than 6 million people are living doubled up with friends or family because they cannot afford a home of their own.
Indeed, housing topped the issues raised in the official "consultations" that our government conducted with grass roots groups and advocates in the lead up to the U.N. process, which is known as the Universal Periodic Review, or UPR. And at the review itself, held last November in Geneva, many of the 228 recommendations the U.S. received focused on the need for firmer action to bolster economic and social rights here at home.
The U.S. response is notable for its acceptance of a number of these recommendations. On the issue of homelessness, the response says that the U.S. supports the Council's recommendations to take steps both to "reinforce" safeguards to protect the rights of homeless Americans and to reduce homelessness as part of our human rights obligations. This is important because it constitutes recognition, for the first time, that these goals have the backing and mandate of our human rights commitments.
Significantly, the U.S. response also included support for recommendations to improve social protection coverage generally, to ensure the rights to food and health for all, and to "[c]ontinue its efforts in the domain of access to housing, vital for the realization of several other rights, in order to meet the needs for adequate housing at an affordable price for all segments of American society." In fact, the response explicitly included addressing homelessness as part of the larger need to "take further measures in the area of economic and social rights."
This matters because while many advocates have long argued that homelessness is part of a continuum of poverty, and can only be effectively addressed by attacking its underlying causes, it has too often been treated as a specialized and isolated problem. The President's proposed 2012 budget, for example, proposes increased funding for programs to address homelessness -- while also proposing cuts to public housing.
But as this example illustrates, pushing the Administration to make good on its commitments to the world community will be critical -- and challenging. Millions of Americans are now suffering as a result of the foreclosure and economic crises sweeping our country. Will the Administration bring its commitments to bear at home?
It's unlikely to happen without a big advocacy push, and to be effective such a push will need the support of the broader public. According to public opinion surveys, three-quarters of Americans agree that housing is a basic human right. Now the U.S. has officially moved towards embracing that view as well. Yet federal programs, not to mention state and local budgets, that help make that right real by funding housing assistance for lower-income Americans are on the budget chopping block.
Every country in the world is reviewed under the UPR every four years, meaning the U.S. will receive its next review in 2014. It's imperative that our government take the same stand at home as it did at the U.N., and protect the basic human right to housing for all. We don't want to have to report back four years from now and say we failed.
That means we have to reframe this year's budget debate so that it won't be about how much to cut -- a little or a lot -- but about how we're going to meet our human rights obligation to reduce homelessness.
Want to learn more about how to use the UPR, and a human rights framework, to fight poverty and homelessness? Please join advocates from across the country at this year's National Forum on the Human Right to Housing in Washington, D.C. on June 7-8 -- and spread the word! It's more important than ever.
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