Politics of fear shapes laws on homelessness

On 18 June I attended a conference organised by the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homelessness (FEANTSA) on “the impact of strategic litigation and advocacy“. Guests from North America shared their experiences of criminalisation of homelessness and European speakers talked about the power and limitations of the European instruments.

Criminalising Homelessness

Stephen Gaetz from York University and Melanie Redman from Coalition to End Youth Homelessness in Toronto, work together against criminalisation of homelesseness. Examples such as handles on park benches designed to hinder persons to sleep on benches and heating under streets being moved from the sidewalks to the middle of the streets stopping homeless from seeking warmth in the winter shows how fear governs policy-makers to “remove undesirable” persons from public spaces. Disproportionate and discriminatory laws and ordinances are being enforced against youth, poverty and homelessness, which stigmatise and create moral panic. Young people are increasingly being harassed and ticketed, not only for homelessness but also acts such as jay walking. When not being able to pay the fine, their debts accumulate and make it hard to get a job and housing. Particularly vunerable are LGBTI, youths and aborginal people. While much investment is put into emergency response to homelessness, very little is being done preventively, and in relation to support and housing. “A Way Home” is a Canadian coalition responding with solutions such as advocacy and by educating the police, including youth with experience working alongside the police.

Tristia Bauman from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington gave an insight into criminalising laws in the United States: while homelessness has become more visible, services have decreased, hitting the vulnerable the most: one million children enrolled in schools are homeless. Homeless people are pushed away from public spaces by increased bans on camping, loitering, loafing, vagrancy, begging and sleeping in public spaces. In 2014, 100 cities banned simply sitting or lying down in public spaces, an increase of 43% in three years. In 2014, 81 cities banned living in vehicles, an increase of 119% in three years. Such a ban can lead to loss of one’s veichle, including valuable belongings such as identity documents. 17 cities have also criminalised those helping homeless people by introducing restrictions and bans on individuals and private organisations sharing food with homeless people. Ms Bauman concluded that criminlising laws are a lost strategy for cities and much more expensive than providing housing in the first place. These laws target marginalised vulnerable groups “just like witch-hunting did in the medieval times”, responded one of the participants.

Criminalisation of homelessness in North America links in many ways to criminalisation of irregular migration in Europe (to remove “the undesirable” from its territory). This includes sanctions on those individuals and organisations helping irregular migrants through humanitarian assistance, including access to housing. Read about our campaign against Criminalising Solidarity here.

European instruments

Pim Fischer and Joris Sprakel are lawyers who have lodged and won several Collective Complaints cases against the Netherlands under the European Social Charter. Mr Fisher explained that persistence in continuously bringing cases forward is what makes you win in the long run. On my question about getting more member states to accede to the European Social Charter, Mr Sprakel answered that the successful cases in one country can risk deterring another to accede. Regis Brilliat, Executive Secretary of the European Committee of Social Rights at the Council of Europe, added that although it is hard to convince governments, they do not want to be criticised by a political body such as the Council of Europe representing human rights, democracy and rule of law. Mr Brillat admitted that it is difficult for the Committee to enforce complaints, monitor and follow-up. In comparison with European Court of Human Rights cases where all states are collectively responsible for implementing decisions, with Collective Complaints decisions states do not feel the same responsibility. Nonetheless, Mr Brillat remained positive that things are slowly moving in the right direction. (Read about our training for NGOs on the Collective Complaints Procedures)

Nicolas Bernard from the Saint-Louise University in Brussels explained that the Charter of Fundamental Rights includes both rights and principles, but the latter needs legislative interventions to make them operational. It is unclear if the right to housing is considered a right or principle. Mr Bernard argued it is a right, and Article 34.3 on housing should be read with Article 1 on human dignity.  (SP article on the COE Conf on protection of social rights, incl about the FRC?).

Ways forward

Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, concluded that although there is a gap between states’ commitments and what they really do, we can achieve real progress.  We have to make bold decisions and use all tools and resources we have to win the battle against inadequate housing and homelessness. We need to marry our political actions with our legal actions and be less timid with our arguments. Instead of focusing only on negative issues such as forced eviction, we should change the conversation and urge states to step up their positive obligations. We need to hold states accountable and articulate what is expected of them in order to put housing on the global agenda.

Thank you FEANTSA for an interesting conference, and keep up the good work!