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I Believe in Human Rights: Defining and Protecting the Human Right to Housing

by Jessica Reed, National Programs Intern

I often hear – and firmly believe – that “housing is a human right,” not a privilege.  Many communities invest resources into shelters, transitional housing, and other services for their homeless populations.  However, people experiencing homelessness need their fundamental right to housing to be respected and advanced. As Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) in Los Angeles, told me recently, “The right to permanent housing should trump the right to sleep, eat, and store one's possessions on the streets.”

At USICH, I’ve had the opportunity to delve deeper into my belief that housing is a right.  I am indebted to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative for their respective publications. (Read more from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty here and here.)

I’ve learned that the human right to housing has been nationally and internationally recognized for over 60 years. Considering housing through a human rights lens has helped shape policy by putting everything into a common legal framework. No matter which political party is in office, the right to housing remains constant, as does the government’s responsibility to protect that right.

So, what does a human right consist of?  Its basic elements are: universality, indivisibility, participation, accountability, transparency, and non-discrimination. In other words, a human right:

Must be afforded to everyone regardless of their differentiating characteristics;
Is interconnected to other rights;
Must allow full participation in its protection by those asserting the right;
Requires government accountability in its enforcement;
Should provide full transparency in any changes that could affect the right; and
Must be protected against all forms of discrimination.
To respect an individual’s human right to housing, these elements must be employed for each of the following right to housing principles: security of tenure; availability of services; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; and cultural adequacy. (Read more about the Human Rights Framework and the Right to Housing Principles)

Together, the human rights framework and the right to housing principles should guarantee that every American citizen has a home that provides security, peace, and dignity. However, on a single night in January of 2012, more than 600,000 people were counted experiencing homelessness - clearly, as a nation we can and must do more to protect all citizens’ right to housing.  My time at USICH has taught me about strategies and best practices, such as Housing First, that communities can use to help vulnerable members exercise their right to housing; many such strategies are documented in USICH’s Solutions Database.

For individuals at-risk of or experiencing homelessness, discrimination can be a major barrier to ending their homelessness and accessing housing. The Federal Fair Housing Act expressly prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap, yet violations still occur. In fact, it’s estimated that more than four million violations occur annually.  Several states have taken the initiative to prevent discrimination against groups not currently protected by Federal law.

Even with these new protections, affirming one’s right to housing can be a challenge. In California, a state that has extended its fair housing protections, it was discovered this year that 29% of San Francisco’s homeless population identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Even more startling to city leaders was the fact that this representation was relatively equal across all age groups, from youths to the elderly. As described in this heartbreaking article in the New York Times, for LGBTQ individuals experiencing homelessness, discrimination in access to housing poses a threat to survival.

Fortunately, current and new policies at the federal level are keeping the promise that vulnerable populations experiencing homelessness have a right to housing. At USICH, I’m proud to be part of our government’s efforts to make sure that every American realizes his/her right to housing.

For more from USICH's human rights series, visit http://usich.gov/issue/human-rights/.

[This article originally appeared on United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.]