12/18/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Two Reports, One Conclusion: Do More to End Homelessness


On December 10, Human Rights Day, two national reports were released. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) published its annual report card evaluating U.S. compliance with the human right to housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued its annual report on homelessness in America. The two reports paint a disturbing picture of human rights in the U.S. -- but also offer reason for hope.

International law recognizes and protects rights that are fundamental to all human beings, including the right to adequate housing. Human rights law also defines what that right means, breaking it down into seven elements. NLCHP's report card report card evaluates the U.S. against each of these elements, assigning a grade to each. Most are poor to failing.

As described in the report card, over the past year millions of Americans slept in shelters, on the streets or other public places. Those living in public places had little other recourse; according to federal estimates (likely conservative), current shelter capacity meets only one-third of need. These Americans risk not only their lives and health by braving the elements, they also risk arrest under laws that criminally punish them simply because they have no home -- including bans on sleeping, eating and sitting in public places.

In addition, almost seven million people lived doubled-up with friends or relatives in 2010 because they could not afford a place of their own. According to many definitions (including those adopted by the U.S. Department of Education) people living under these conditions are also homeless. Affordability is one of the seven elements of the human right to housing, and by any definition, for people doubling up because of economic need, the right is violated.

The report card gives attention as well to the much larger number of people who lack "security of tenure," another of the seven elements of the human right to housing. The term refers to people in precarious housing situations -- for whom a missed paycheck, health crisis or other unexpected expense can result in a missed rent or mortgage payment and an eviction notice. It's a category that also includes renters living in foreclosed properties who, through no fault of their own, are at risk of eviction following bank takeover of the property. Federal law enacted in 2009 protects these tenants, but as the NLCHP report card notes -- and as documented in a new NLCHP report -- lender non-compliance with the law remains a serious problem.

HUD's annual report on homelessness paints a different picture, suggesting that homelessness has not increased, despite the recession. Using a narrow definition of homelessness, HUD counted only the number of people who used shelter or transitional housing on a single night in January of this year. But given reports from across the country that shelters regularly turn away requests for help -- some even have waiting lists -- this is hardly a reliable measure. HUD also relied on a one night "street count" conducted by community volunteers who attempted to visually "count" people they judged to be homeless in selected areas of the country, a task generally acknowledged to be virtually impossible. The narrowness of the definition and the ad hoc nature of the street "count" mean that HUD's data is highly problematic.

Given these constraints, HUD's conclusion that overall homelessness has not increased may not be surprising. Nevertheless, while this was the message highlighted by HUD in public statements, an additional, complementary report issued by HUD at the same time undermines that rosy conclusion. That report presents annual data on shelter use -- measuring how many people used shelters over a period of a year. It concludes that by this measure -- and even completely excluding people living in public places -- family homelessness increased by 13.5 percent from 2007 to 2011. The reason for the difference is that the "single night" measure is necessarily limited by shelter capacity -- what it measures is primarily the extent of assistance available, not the need itself. The annual data is also limited by capacity, but less so, since more people can be helped even by the same capacity over a period of time.

Nevertheless, despite the disingenuous gloss on the numbers, in releasing the report HUD also noted that much more needs to be done to end homelessness. In fact, HUD officials stated that to meet its goal of ending homelessness, the federal government needs to spend 10 times more than the 1.9 billion HUD currently spends. This is the first time that HUD has made such a statement -- and for advocates, it's both an important admission and standard to which to hold government accountable.

Also positive, and noted in the Law Center report, are recent acknowledgements by the Administration that the U.S. should be doing more to secure human rights here in the U.S. Last year, following a United Nations review of U.S. compliance with its human rights commitments, the U.S. acknowledged that homelessness in the U.S. implicates human rights concerns, and that the U.S. should do more to ensure housing for all. This past June, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Justice issued a joint report condemning city laws and policies that "criminalize" homelessness --- and noting that they may violate not only constitutional rights but also international human rights commitments.

Those commitments apply at all level of government, and at the state level, earlier this year Rhode Island set a national example with the first-ever Homeless Bill of Rights. This initiative -- spurred by the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project and aided by NLCHP -- is an important step forward, spurring similar efforts elsewhere, including legislation now pending in California.

Homelessness and dire poverty in what is still the wealthiest nation on earth violate fundamental human rights, and the two reports reveal a disturbing picture of our country. But they also reflect important progress in acknowledging the scope of the need, its implications, and the resources needed to truly solve it. This progress in turn reflects the advocacy of many organizations and people -- including NLCHP, which is leading a campaign for the human right to housing.

Especially now, with the imminent threat of catastrophic cuts due to the "fiscal cliff," that progress matters. It shows that advocacy can and does make a difference -- in fact, that is the only way that real change happens. It should spur us to keep fighting.