U.S. Government Conceals Housing Violations in Report to United Nations

“What is needed is a change in the mindset and motivation of our elected leaders to say that housing is not just a commodity, but a basic human need, and a basic human right. This report was a chance to make a strong statement in that regard, and it is sad to see our leaders shying away from this opportunity.” —Eric Tars, human rights program director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

by Andy Beres, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Despite the millions of people living homeless on the streets, and millions more at risk of losing their housing, the U.S. government issued a report on August 23, 2010, painting an overly rosy picture of the status of human rights in the United States.

In its report to the UN Human Rights Council, the government acknowledged the underlying importance of housing to many rights, stating, “The ability to access quality and affordable housing has a substantial impact on a person’s health, education, and economic opportunities.”

However, it diminished the current housing crisis by saying only, “Although we are fortunate to have a high-quality housing stock and a high percentage of home ownership, meeting our nation’s housing needs will require continued effort, particularly in expanding the availability of affordable housing in all communities as our population grows.”

The report follows a series of listening sessions across the country, where the government gathered input from people regarding their human rights. Following these consultations, when asked what human rights issue was highlighted most, David Sullivan, Attorney-Adviser at the U.S. Department of State, said: “Housing. We have heard more about housing than you would believe in these sessions. If I had to pick the number one issue brought to the U.S., it would be housing.”

“Given the degree of suffering being experienced by American families and individuals right now, it is disappointing that the input from homeless and low-income individuals was not reflected in the government’s report,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (“the Law Center”), which helped to coordinate testimonies for the process.

“President Obama has already acknowledged that in the wealthiest country, it is not acceptable to have families homeless on the streets, but this report neither acknowledges the severity of the housing and homelessness crisis in the U.S., nor identifies specific steps that the government will take to address it.”

The U.S. report is part of a new procedure of review, through which the UN Council reviews the human rights records of every country in the world every four years. This is the first time the United States has undergone this review.

“There are more vacant apartments and homes across this country than there are homeless persons. We have the tools to protect the right to housing in this country,” said Eric Tars, human rights program director at the Law Center.

“What is needed is a change in the mindset and motivation of our elected leaders to say that housing is not just a commodity, but a basic human need, and a basic human right. This report was a chance to make a strong statement in that regard, and it is sad to see our leaders shying away from this opportunity.”

Earlier this year, a coalition led by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty submitted a report focused on U.S. violations of housing rights, and offering concrete steps the government can take toward realizing a human right to housing, including stopping the destruction of public housing, ceasing the criminalization of homelessness, and remedying historical discrimination in the housing market.

The UN Human Rights Council will conduct hearings on the U.S. report on November 5 in Geneva, Switzerland, and will issue recommendations for how the United States can better meet its obligations to protect and ensure human rights for all Americans.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty’s mission is to prevent and end homelessness by serving as the legal arm of the nationwide movement to end homelessness. To achieve its mission, the Law Center pursues three main strategies: impact litigation, policy advocacy, and public education

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