Criminalization of Homelessness: From Europe to Eugene

In November, 2012, the Hungarian Constitutional Court won international acclaim when it struck down a law that criminalized homelessness. That acclaim turned to condemnation as the lead political party responded by changing the Constitution to condone local authorities who criminally penalize people for consistent presence in public spaces. Disputes between the Hungarian Government and local advocates have been fueled in recent years by a rise in laws that penalize the basic existence and needs of homeless persons. The Hungarian Parliament is currently debating modification to the State’s Penal Code that defines street homelessness as a crime punishable by fines or jail. The Government’s consistent actions to create and protect laws that target homeless people exemplify the growing trend to criminalize homelessness, both abroad and here in the U.S.

The international community is responding, however. Criminalization of homelessness will be in the international spotlight as hundreds of advocates gather in Geneva, Switzerland, October 17-18, 2013 for the Human Rights Committee (HRC) Review on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) has strategically advocated to the HRC through submitting its shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading, detailing how criminalization violates international law, and the HRC responded by placing the criminalization on its list of key issues for the Review. Representatives from NLCHP will attend the HRC hearings in Geneva to ensure U.S. accountability, and now advocates world-wide can point to the growing international record against criminalization of homelessness to support their advocacy.

Members of the NLCHP team recently drafted an article for the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless’ (FEANTSA) newsletter, due out later this month, which chronicles the agency’s advocacy efforts leading up to the HRC hearings. NLCHP shares the HRC review model of advocacy with its international allies to ensure that human rights accountability becomes the norm. We hope raising the issue of criminalization with the HRC can support similar useful human rights campaigns in places such as Hungary. HRC acknowledgment of criminalization as a priority issue gives backing to human rights advocates across the globe as they contest criminally punishing individuals for basic life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, eating, or eliminating bodily wastes when no legal alternatives exist.

In contrast to the activities in Hungary, the Eugene, OR City Council recently approved a pilot program to allow city-monitored camping by homeless persons on selected sites. The program was approved with the understanding that a successful pilot could lead to additional sites around the city. While acknowledging this is not a permanent solution, Eugene is taking a positive step toward upholding the human rights of its citizens by providing space and sanitation resources in place of more costly arrests and imprisonment.        

On World Habitat Day, Oct. 7th, 2013, NLCHP will host a webinar regarding its advocacy on the issue of criminalization to the HRC. World Habitat Day is also the start of the annual Zero Evictions Days campaign held by the International Alliance of Inhabitants. The webinar will provide examples of how the advocacy on criminalization at the international level has led to successes in the U.S. and how such tools can be shared amongst human rights advocates around the world.

-Kirsten Blume, Program on Human Rights & the Global Economy Fellow

The original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

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