Anyone working on homelessness and affordable housing issues is familiar with the statistics and the human suffering behind them. We know homelessness has been a national crisis for 30 years and we know the recession and dramatic increases in foreclosures have made things much worse.
Just look at the most recent Annual Homelessness Assessment Report from HUD: family homelessness increased by 20 percent between January 2007 and January 2010. In December 2010, the U.S. Conference of Mayors’annual survey of cities across the country reported a 9 percent increase in family homelessness in 2010 alone. And in addition to people who are in shelters or on the streets, over 6 million are doubled up due to economic necessity. In many communities tent cities are going up.
We know we suffer from affordable housing and homelessness crises—but how often do we think of them as human rights crises? As it happens, more and more local advocates are using a human rights framework to address issues of homelessness and housing—and they’re gaining ground.
The Human Rights Framework
In the United States, we’re more used to talking about civil rights—the right to vote, the right to free speech—than we are about economic, social, and cultural rights. But international human rights law embraces these lesser-discussed rights.
While never ratified by the U.S. Senate, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational human rights document adopted (with U.S. leadership) by the United Nations in 1948, includes the “right to an adequate standard of living.” This can serve as a powerful tool for advocates.
There are seven elements required for housing to be considered adequate under these standards: it must be habitable, accessible, affordable, and culturally adequate; offer security of tenure; be located near jobs, schools, and other needed services; and have necessary infrastructure such as sanitation.
International standards require governments to realize this right progressively, using the “maximum of their available resources.” Governments are not required to ensure the right for all immediately, but they must show constant progress toward that goal.
It’s unlikely that the human right to housing will be fully realized in the United States any time soon given the current focus in Congress on cutting spending on social programs. But as advocates, we can work toward that goal. And while we work toward our broad, long-term goal of housing justice for all, we can also use the human right to housing in our advocacy to get shorter-term, concrete results now.
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