The Road to Geneva – Peaceful Assembly

This is the sixth edition of a blogs series (see blog intro) on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s advocacy efforts during the HRC Review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. The information in this blog came from the Law Center’s shadow report, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading.

The Right to Assembly is important for homeless persons for many reasons. Homeless individuals who assemble into communities, such as tent cities, have an increased sense of safety, privacy, belonging, and security. Assembly can act as a form of protest – a refusal to remain invisible. Ordinances and law enforcement practices that evict, penalize, and disperse homeless communities violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 21 Right to Assembly.    

Article 21 of the ICCPR protects “intentional, temporary gatherings of several persons for a specific purpose.” Homelessness creates extremely precarious situations, and the right to assemble enables homeless people to mitigate some forms of physical and psychological vulnerability by giving and receiving support, sharing resources, and protecting one another. Next week in Geneva, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) will argue before the UN Human Rights Committee that the unjustified restrictions on homeless people in their use of public space undercuts people’s Article 21 right to assemble.

Homeless communities are often specifically targeted by law enforcement for removal, dispersal, and eviction. In 2007, police in St. Petersburg, FL, forcibly evicted people from a tent city and used box cutters and blades to slash (and permanently destroy) twenty tents. In Orlando, FL, Food Not Bombs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), brought suit against a city ordinance that prohibited sharing food with more than twenty-five people in downtown public parks without a permit – only two permits were allowed per year, essentially road-blocking attempts to consistently provide food. People that continued to supply food faced sixty days in jail and a $500 fine.

A federal court judge struck down the Orlando ordinance, finding it unconstitutional to individual’s freedom of speech and freedom of assembly rights. However, ordinances and law enforcement practices that evict and disperse homeless communities continue to be prevalent in cities across the U.S. Advocates should make the strong argument that these ordinances restricting assembly violate U.S. Constitutional rights and International law under ICCPR article 21.

In the US Interagency Council on Homelessness report, Searching Out Solutions, the U.S. government itself has recognized that criminalization does not reduce homelessness or protect public order, and ordinances that restrict the assembly of homeless people cannot be justified by public policy. It is crucial that advocates fight the prohibition of using public spaces, due to the direct hardship it poses on homeless individuals. Advocates should also fight to maintain people’s rights in the public arena where homeless individuals often experience increased security, can protest laws that attempt to make them invisible, and create community through assembly.  

-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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