THE BLOG
11/10/2010 01:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Homelessness, Human Rights and the United States

Last week, for the first time, the United States was reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council for its compliance with the entire range of human rights standards adopted by the world community. These include economic and social rights, and the Geneva review was a historic occasion for advocates for economic and social justice. But its significance will depend on follow up work here at home.

Homelessness and the affordable housing crisis figured prominently in the meetings held across the country by the State Department in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review, as the Human Rights Council process is known. According to State, the lead agency representing the United States in the review, of all the human rights issues raised in those preparatory "consultations" it held with advocates, local governments, and ordinary people, housing was the number one issue identified.

Indeed, homelessness is increasing in record numbers across the United States, as more and more people are affected by the foreclosure crisis and continuing high unemployment. According to a recent national poll, 53 percent of Americans are worried about having the money to make their monthly housing payment, with worries most intense among low income and minority households.

While acknowledging the need to ensure affordable housing, and noting that "[t]his was a topic frequently raised by citizens in our consultations," the official U.S. report submitted by the State Department devotes just three out of its 100 paragraphs to it, and uses those paragraphs simply to say that the United States has a public housing program and a voucher subsidy program, and that it provides funding to homelessness assistance and prevention. On issues of housing at least, the report the United States submitted presents a picture far rosier than the grim reality.

There is no mention of the reality that funds for public housing and housing subsidies have been drastically cut over the past two decades, such that waiting lists for both programs are years long in communities across the country. Nor is there mention of the inadequacy of funding for homelessness assistance and prevention: the report does not mention that, according to HUD's own data, about half of the homeless people living in the United States are unsheltered due to lack of space. Nor does the report mention the shameful trend in communities across the United States to criminally punish homeless people who are forced to live in public places.

These trends and their impact on communities across the country -- including the disproportionate toll they are taking on communities of color -- were documented in the report submitted to the Council by a coalition of national and local housing organizations, coordinated by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) and endorsed by over 60 organizations. The report, submitted as an official document under the UPR process that allows for non-governmental stakeholders to inform the review, offers a comprehensive review of housing rights violations in America, and made specific recommendations for changes to U.S. policy. The report also summarized prior U.N. reviews of the status of the human right to housing in the United States., including the official visit to the United States last year by the U.N.'s official on the right to housing.

During the review, numerous nations raised housing issues in their questions to the United States delegation, and expressed concern about housing violations in the United States. NLCHP and several of our coalition members were also present to speak to these issues. One such member was Deborah Burton, a formerly homeless organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network. Burton said she traveled to Geneva to let the world know about the reality of housing need in America: "Our government's saying there's enough housing, but that's not true. And even where there is housing, people are living in slum conditions."

At the end of the Review, in its official statement, HUD indicated that it had heard these concerns: "The U.N.'s Universal Periodic Review process helps to inform and influence our nation's effort to dramatically increase the amount of affordable housing, especially for those struggling to find a place to call home."

That's promising, but at the end of the day, what matters is what HUD -- and the Administration as a whole -- actually do to address the housing rights crisis here at home. For NLCHP and our coalition partners, the work is just beginning.

Click here to learn more about the process and get involved.

Click here to see video updates from the review.