UN experts: Governments must urgently scrap unfair laws criminalising homelessness and poverty


UN human rights experts have called on governments to scrap “cruel and counterproductive” laws that are leading to people living in homelessness and poverty being arrested, fined or subjected to degrading punishment for carrying out activities in public that are vital for their survival.

A new study published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, and the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, documents a growing body of evidence showing that men, women and children living in homelessness and poverty are increasingly facing criminal penalties, fines and sanctions for activities such as sleeping, washing, cooking, eating, begging and working on the street.

“Instead of addressing the global affordable housing and inequality crises, which are primarily responsible for homelessness, governments are increasingly turning to outdated and vague vagrancy laws, many of which have their roots in colonial rule, to move people off the streets and make them disappear,” Rajagopal said.

“Homelessness is a sign of State and social failure, rooted in policy and institutional factors. However, it is politically convenient, and bows to populist pressure, to criminalise vulnerable people for engaging in activities, such as sleeping in public, that the rest of us have the privilege of carrying out in the privacy of our own homes.

“These laws will not solve homelessness or poverty. They are in direct violation of international human rights and must be urgently repealed.”

The study finds that criminalising people who are living in homelessness does not reduce the number of people in street situations, but instead pushes them further into poverty.

“These laws result in a double punishment: people are punished first when they are pushed into homelessness and again when they are sanctioned. They are cruel, counterproductive and a disproportionate response even to any legitimate safety or public health concern presented by homelessness,” De Schutter said.

“Added to the high human cost of criminalising individuals for behaviours that should not be subject to punishment, is the huge cost to the taxpayer of law-enforcement, fine collection, judicial sanctioning, detention or imprisonment – resources that would see a much higher return if invested in long-term, safe housing and social services.”

The experts urged governments to repeal blanket prohibitions against begging, to reallocate resources from law enforcement to addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness, to abolish prison sentences for those that can’t afford to pay fines, to expunge criminal records of sanctioned individuals, and to resort to non-custodial measures for minor offences of persons living in homelessness.

“Homelessness and poverty are growing because of political choices that are making a decent income and adequate housing a distant dream for millions,” Rajagopal said. “This must be addressed. Relying on law enforcement will not solve the problem.”

The study, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, draws on over 130 submissions from national and local governments, human rights institutions, civil society organisations and academics. It follows a recent submission by the two experts in a US Supreme Court case, arguing that persons living in homelessness cannot be penalised for camping or sleeping in public spaces when there are no alternatives available.

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