United Nations Human Rights Expert Condemns Cruel Treatment of Homeless People in United States
September 29, 2011 by peopleproject
by Whitney Gent
National Law Center on Homelessness and PovertyOn August 24, in an official report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a top UN investigator said that the United States’ failure to provide homeless persons access to water and sanitary facilities “could … amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.” The report was issued by UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation Catarina de Albuquerque.
“The Rapporteur’s report is the latest in a series of condemnations by international experts of the criminalization and mistreatment of homeless persons in the U.S.,” said Eric Tars, human rights program director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty which helped facilitate her visit. “Earlier this year, the U.S. committed itself before the Human Rights Council to doing more to protect the rights of homeless persons. Where is the action to follow the words?”
Albuquerque visited the United States in February and March 2011, and was struck by the “extraordinary lengths” homeless persons had to go to just to remove bodily wastes. During a visit to the Safe Ground tent community near Sacramento, California, she met a man who called himself the community’s “sanitation technician.”
The man, “Tim,” engineered a sanitation system consisting of a seat overtop a two-layered plastic bag. Every week, Tim collects bags of human waste, weighing anywhere from 130 to 230 pounds, and hauls them on his bicycle several miles to a public restroom. When a toilet becomes available, he empties the contents of the bags. Following the disposal, he secures the dirty bags in a clean one, which he then places in the garbage, before washing his hands with water and lemon.
He said the job is difficult, but that he does it for the community — especially the women.
The UN Special Rapporteur’s report states: “The United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, must ensure that everyone [has access] to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure and which provides privacy and ensures dignity. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restroom facilities in public places, including during the night. The long-term solution to homelessness must be to ensure adequate housing.”
In June 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness adopted its first-ever comprehensive plan to end homelessness, including a section promoting constructive alternatives to criminalization. However, the criminalization of homelessness by communities persists, and to date, the Justice Department and other agencies have done little to convey the unconstitutionality of these practices to local policymakers.
“This adds to a growing record of both domestic and international law stating that homeless persons cannot be criminalized for basic life-sustaining acts when the community provides no legal alternative,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the Law Center. “But ultimately, we must remedy this situation because we, as Americans, believe that no person deserves to be treated this way.”
Whitney Gent wrote this article for The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Read the Rapporteur’s Report here.