Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure

The Habitat III process is a key opportunity to undertake a bold goal: to commit to ending homelessness, including its causes, by 2030.

A homeless man sleeps next to the Ganges River in Haridwar, India. (Pius Lee/Shutterstock)

It should go without saying that housing is essential to well-being, even life. It is so much more than a physical space or structure. It’s where we develop our first social relationships, it ties us to our communities, and it’s connected to our livelihoods. Just as housing goes beyond four walls and a roof, homelessness is not about just the lack of a house.

When asked to describe someone who is homeless, what comes to mind for most is a person (often an older man) sleeping rough on the street, without so much as a roof for protection. While this is a devastating reality for many who are homeless across the globe, this image is just one segment of the world’s homeless population.

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Go deeper and we see that, around the world, millions upon millions of people are invisibly homeless. This includes women, children and youths who find refuge with others, doubled or tripled up. This also includes multiple-generation families living in crammed shacks lacking even the most basic services, who at a moment’s notice may be evicted, often for a second or third time.

And then there’s the aspect of homelessness that is rarely mentioned, let alone tackled: criminalization, discrimination and stigmatization. Homeless people are often denied access to basic services such as water or sanitation, and are even fined for engaging in activities necessary for their own survival — for instance, eating and sleeping in public spaces. They are treated like “human waste”, sometimes forced to establish their households on or next to garbage dumps.

Homelessness is not just one of the most extreme forms of physical deprivation; it also defines a group that is subject to extreme forms of discrimination and violence. For homeless people, it’s double jeopardy: Laws and policies create homelessness and then penalize homeless people for being homeless.

[See: Home is where we practice citizenship, Habitat III stakeholders say]

Understanding homelessness in its narrowest sense naturally results in narrow policy responses, which often focus on the creation of more houses. Though rational in intent, this “feed the hungry” approach ignores underlying causes of homelessness, fails to address stigmatization and criminalization of homeless people, and completely sidesteps any critical analysis of preventative measures.

In order to broaden the response to homelessness and thus effectively address it, we need a paradigm shift. We have to move away from an exclusive focus on the individual circumstances leading to and arising out of homelessness, toward a focus that recognizes the structural causes of it as well as its individualized dimensions.

A human rights framework is a good starting point.

[See: Human rights and the New Urban Agenda]

Governments should take note and ensure the right to housing is centre stage at the upcoming U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, the conference commonly known as Habitat III that takes place in October. Unfortunately, the crisis of homelessness and the recognition of housing as a human right have not dominated discussions in the lead up to the conference, leaving a wide gap between housing policy and government obligations.

Root causes

If housing were approached as a human right, then homelessness — visible or invisible — would necessarily be recognized as the failure of States to implement it. This shift in perspective moves us past the initial urge to blame the victim and instead focuses attention on State action or inaction.

“The crisis of homelessness and the recognition of housing as a human right have not dominated discussions in the lead up to Habitat III, leaving a wide gap between housing policy and government obligations.”

Such an approach would expose the many root causes of homelessness. These include, for instance, States abandoning the responsibility for social protection in the context of unprecedented urbanization; implementing laws and policies that discriminate against homeless people; and failing to adequately regulate real-estate markets, land distribution and private actors in keeping with human rights obligations.

[See: Connecting housing with sustainable urbanization in the New Urban Agenda]

As a first step, I am calling on all States to make a firm commitment to ending homelessness, including its causes, by 2030. While daunting, the timing is ripe in light of the global commitment by States to tackle poverty and ensure access to adequate housing for all by this date under the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals.

Habitat III has the potential to act as an influential force towards achieving this goal if the right to housing and homelessness are considered critical factors in the development of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of October’s conference..

This will require governments to shift the dialogue and vision around housing policy, and to commit resources in a manner that corresponds with obligations under the right to housing. A rights-based approach brings clarity, outlining responsibilities as well as important next steps, such as creating a national homelessness strategy and developing deeper definitions of homelessness.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

I believe a flexible and inclusive definition is necessary. This needs to focus on the most desperate, to recognize homeless people as rights-bearers, and to consider social dimensions as well as structural causes of homelessness. New measurements of homelessness can be adopted to support this with qualitative data supplementing quantitative methods so that prevention and underlying causes can be identified and addressed.

Alongside these changes, homeless individuals should be given opportunities to claim their rights and access effective remedies. Tribunals, courts or human rights institutions are examples of ways in which States can offer access to justice and ensure that the rights of the homelessness do not go ignored.

These are a few of the critical elements missing when we fail to view homelessness as a violation of human rights.

Without doubt, building houses will be part of any strategy to eliminate homelessness. But only a human rights response can address what is fundamentally a human rights failure.

Leilani Farha will be presenting her report on homelessness to the U. N. Human Rights Council on 3 March and hosting a side event in Geneva on 4 March. To watch the presentation live, go to U. N. WebTV.

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Leilani Farha

Leilani Farha is the U. N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing. Follow her on Twitter @adequatehousing.