UN Says Racial Impact of Homelessness Is Human Rights Abuse in the United States

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UN Says Racial Impact of Homelessness Is Human Rights Abuse in the United States
By: Eric Tars
28 July 2006
 
Dismissing government statements that the U.S. is taking steps to address homelessness and discrimination, today the UN Human Rights Committee noted its concern that while African Americans constitute just 12% of the population, they represent 50% of homeless people, and the government is required to take "adequate and adequately implemented" measures to remedy this human rights abuse.

This is the first time the Committee has directly addressed the problem of the discriminatory impact of homelessness in the U.S.

The U.N. review is a routine procedure that occurs every four years for countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is one of two treaties that together are equivalent to an international "Bill of Rights." The U.S. signed and ratified the treaty in 1992, but the U.S. review – its second – is more than seven years late due to the State Department`s delay in submitting its own official report.

Last year, the U.N. warned that it would commence reviewing the U.S. without the official report if it were delayed any longer. The State Department submitted its official report on 21 October 2005.

"The Committee`s message is that when the statistics are this stark, the government cannot stand idly by, or worse yet, cut the limited programs of assistance that have never been adequately funded," said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), "In an even more disturbing development, some cities, such as Las Vegas, are punishing private individuals for trying to close the gap by providing assistance themselves. The Committee recognized that homelessness is not simply a matter of individual responsibility: under human rights law, the government is responsible for taking "adequate and adequately implemented" measures to remedy this historical discrimination."

NLCHP was one of over 140 organizations that submitted a "parallel report" to the UN Human Rights Committee last month as a rebuttal to the official U.S. report, detailing how the U.S. has violated its human rights treaty obligations, ranging from discrimination and homelessness to torture and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

On 17-18 July, representatives of the State Department and other federal agencies answered questions from the Committee.

During the hearings, Panamanian human rights expert Alfredo Castillero Hoyos used information from NLCHP`s shadow report, noting that there are over 840,000 homeless in the U.S., and 6.8 million have been homeless at some point in their lives. He said this often leads to health issues, including death, citing as an example the 21 homeless who died during a heat wave in Arizona last year. Failing to prevent these deaths is a violation of Article 6, the right to life.

Wan Kim, Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice replied that, "Housing rights are basic important rights guaranteed at both the state and federal level," and that "Every person is entitled to shelter as a basic need." However he qualified his remarks by saying that "Obviously we cannot house every single person. But we are taking steps toward that goal."

"Clearly the Committee was not satisfied with the U.S. government`s answer that `steps are being taken`," said Eric Tars, an attorney with NLCHP who attended the hearings, "The Committee looked at the statistics and said `you`re not addressing the problem.`"

"The government has the power to adequately fund housing assistance programs, to raise the minimum wage, to ensure minority children are properly educated. We are not powerless here – but the government has not used its p

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