UN experts welcome US report on criminalizing homelessness

[JURIST] The UN Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) [official website] on Monday welcomed [press release] a report [text, PDF] published by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official websites] which found that ordinances criminalizing homelessness may violate human rights as well as the Fourth and Eighth Amendments [text]. The report condemns the criminalization of the homeless through various acts of living, such as sleeping or conducting personal hygiene measures in public spaces and suggests alternatives to reduce homelessness and implement preventative measures. The report goes on to state:

Homeless individuals who have been forced to leave an area or whose belongings have been confiscated by law enforcement during sweeps of homeless encampments have successfully brought civil rights challenges on the grounds that law enforcement violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and their due process rights. The Fourth Amendment also serves as a basis to challenge government actors who confiscate an individual's property during sweeps and either destroy, or fail to provide meaningful procedures to reclaim seized property. Laws imposing criminal penalties for engaging in necessary life activities when there are no other public options that exist have been found to violate the Eighth Amendment.
In a recent report [text, PDF] to the UN General Assembly, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Magdalena Sepulveda [official profile] warned of increasing laws penalizing individuals living in poverty. Both the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate standard of living Raquel Rolnik and Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque [official profiles] addressed the issue in their reports stating that cities do not provide enough affordable housing or shelters [report, PDF] leading to an increase in homelessness, and that denying an individual the right to engage in necessary personal hygiene measures compromises human dignity [report, PDF].

These reports come after economic and financial problems have caused an increase in the US homeless population. The OHCHR suggests that any law disproportionally affecting those living in poverty should be repealed. In 2008, New York City reached a settlement in a long-standing lawsuit over homeless families' right to use shelters [JURIST report] throughout the city. The lawsuit stemmed from a claim that shelters in the city were deficient and did not institute proper standards. In 2006, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled Los Angeles homeless ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment [JURIST report]. They found LA ordinances subjecting the homeless to arrest if they were caught sitting, lying or sleeping in public was cruel and unusual punishment.

 

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