Governments are criminalizing homeless people to distract from their own failures

Homeless people worldwide have one thing in common: their human rights are being violated

By Renata De Souza, Researcher/Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at Amnesty International

More than 100 million people are currently homeless worldwide, according to a UN estimate. This staggering figure demonstrates the failures of governments across the world to protect human rights and ensure the most basic needs of their populations are met.

Today is World Habitat Day, and this year’s theme is housing policies and affordable homes. Governments in 193 countries have promised to ensure that by 2030 every person has access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and essential services. But affordable housing policies will only reach the most vulnerable if governments tackle the root causes of homelessness too – often a perfect storm of injustice, inequality and discrimination.

Globally, homelessness has increased in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, with many countries seeing an increase in unemployment, job insecurity and in-work poverty. In many places, this has been exacerbated by government austerity measures which result in reduced spending on social housing and homeless shelters.

In the UK, for example, the number of rough sleepers has more than doubled since 2010 amid government’s cuts in welfare and social housing programmes. A recent survey by the Refugee Council has shown that people granted refugee status are particularly at risk of becoming homeless and destitute as there are no programmes to support their transition from receiving asylum support to living independently.

There are many different reasons why people become homeless. For some it is a result of being forcibly evicted without receiving compensation or alternative accommodation by the authorities. Unequal access to land and property are also among the causes of homelessness particularly among women, older people and people with disabilities. Domestic violence is often a factor for women. Homelessness also takes different forms – it might mean sleeping on the streets, or “sofa surfing” with family or friends.

Despite these different circumstances, homeless people have one thing in common: they are all victims of human rights violations. The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing has described homelessness as an extreme violation of the rights to adequate housing and non-discrimination. It is often also a violation of various other human rights including rights to life and health. Discrimination is intrinsically connected to homelessness. People who are already vulnerable and marginalized are more likely to become homeless; and those who are homeless are more likely to be discriminated against.

For example, the pervasive disadvantages experienced by Indigenous Peoples in Australia are also reflected in their access to housing. Official figures released in 2015 showed that although Indigenous Peoples represented three per cent of the country’s population, they accounted for 23 per cent of those who use homeless services in Australia. 

But instead of tackling the root causes of homelessness, governments around the world are increasingly targeting people on the streets with criminal laws and regulations. Whether through anti-vagrancy laws, policies which block homeless access to essential services, or punitive measures and sweeping operations to force them out of the city, authorities are trampling on the rights of homeless people.

And it’s getting worse – the more visible people sleeping on the street become, the more negative is the response from authorities, the stereotypes perpetuated by the media and the indifference of the general public.

In Brazil for example, children and adolescents living on the streets are often rounded up and forced into institutions. The dismantling of social programmes, low availability of services and infrastructure dedicated to this age group, and the failure of public officials to follow due process, mean that instead of ensuring that these children’s rights are protected, authorities often simply lock these children up.

There have been several serious episodes of violence against homeless children and adolescents in Brazil, including the Candelaria Massacre in 1993 in which a death squad, formed by off duty police officers, opened fire on a group of adolescents sleeping rough in central Rio, killing eight. The perpetrators of such abuses frequently escape accountability, and families and victims are denied justice.

In Hungary, an anti-homeless campaign which started in the early 2000s saw local authorities introducing or amending local ordinances to ban people from begging, picking up left over food from bins or sleeping in public spaces. These various initiatives were elevated to the national level in 2013, when an amendment to the Hungarian Fundamental Law allowed local authorities to define city areas that cannot be used for habitation, on the pretext of preserving public order and cultural heritage.

These “offences” are punishable by community service, fines, or imprisonment for recurrences. Hundreds of people who are already unable to pay for their own basic needs have been fined under these various laws.

Amnesty International is calling on all governments to set up a process for public participation and consultation on draft national policies, and ensure that homeless people participate in the process. They must prioritize the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups; ensure gender equality and that no one is discriminated against; take concrete steps towards providing appropriate housing solutions and access to essential services for all; and guarantee that everyone has a minimum degree of security of tenure.

Everybody deserves a safe and secure home. For too long, governments have tried to deflect attention from their own failures to ensure this right by criminalizing and stigmatizing homeless people.

If governments are serious about tackling the ‘housing crisis’, they must change their approach and develop targeted and sustainable solutions to ensure they are fulfilling their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledge of “leaving no one behind”. With 100 million people not sure where they will sleep tonight or next week, there is no time to waste.