Is having a home a right?

Homelessness should be treated as a human rights violation, argue housing advocates.

Even on these coldest nights of the year, Americans can't claim a right to adequate housing - not yet. But the notion that having a home is a basic human right is one that is gaining some currency around the globe, as well as on the corners of some of the most frigid cities in the United States.

Record-breaking cold spells this winter have brought fresh attention to the plight of the 840,000 Americans who sleep in streets or in makeshift shelters on any given night. Twenty-five cities are reporting an average 13 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter over 2002, according to a US Conference of Mayors survey.

Arguing that housing is a basic human entitlement, some advocates for the homeless have sharply criticized the situation in the US. Despite the country's enormous wealth, a growing number of its citizens are homeless - a state of affairs that some international groups view as unacceptable and unjust.

An investigator for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in January cited the US for "a range of violations" in a "dire reality" of "human rights denial" in the area of housing.

Homeless advocates have also cried foul. A January report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says US promises made in 1948, 1949, and 1996 to progressively house all its citizens "have been badly broken." The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, meanwhile, is preparing to argue that a projected net loss of 8,000 public housing units over the next five years would, for as many as 10,000 squatters, constitute unfair "forced eviction" under international human rights law.

"I think a lot of us are groping for ways to square local, state, and national law with human rights principles," says Rene Heybach, director of the Chicago Coalition's Law Project. "There's a great yearning to find an international focus because our government hasn't provided [enough] to keep our people safe."

But changes are afoot, argue some members of the Bush administration.

"It may very well be," says Philip Mangano, executive director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness and the government's point person on homelessness, that remedying "this wrong of homelessness will lead us to establish the right to housing. That would be consistent with our history of righting wrongs in this country, like slavery, and then creating rights afterward."

Mr. Mangano disputes the claim that the Bush administration has failed to address what he acknowledges to be a problem exacerbated by simultaneous job losses and rising housing costs. He points to the current year's $1.27 billion investment in a range of programs to reduce homelessness. The figure marks a $100 million increase over the prior year, he said, and represents "probably the most ever invested anywhere" to put the needy in homes.

Yet as advocates paint a vastly different picture of diminishing public resources for housing over the past three decades, the underlying question still looms large: Do Americans have a right to housing? Where would they look to find it?

Scholars and activists agree that American law today provides no basis for a legal claim to housing. But they also agree such a basis could be established either via federal statute or constitutional amendment - although many question whether a majority of Americans would be ready to make the changes needed to usher in a new understanding of rights that would include housing.

As to whether any form of international law could be invoked, scholars are even more doubtful.

International agreements such as the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights or the 1972 International Covenant on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights are irrelevant to US courts unless treaties have been established to make them binding, says John Yoo, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. In no case involving human rights, he said, was a treaty ever in effect to require compliance.

International standards can be invoked, adds Mr. Yoo, only when "something is so universally agreed on as being evil, as with torture and genocide, that we let [international] law be brought in, even though there's no [domestic] statute against it. With housing, the chances of it becoming a law in the United States that people have a right to it are almost zero."

Yet as far off as a legal right to housing may be, advocates are nonetheless determined to advance the case that housing is a universal human right, which may or may not one day be codified in law. Though they cannot hold government accountable to statute, they can try to shame those who have not upheld internationally signed promises to make steady progress toward the goal of ending homelessness.

"What's happening here is that we're stepping back," says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "More people are homeless. More people are spending more of their income on housing. We're moving backward. That's not acceptable."

The United States is not alone in experiencing a rise in homelessness, Mangano points out. And although other countries, such as Scotland and France, have in recent years passed legislation toward housing all citizens, the US is in his view honoring the spirit of its international pledges by funding programs to stem the causes of homelessness.

"A home for every American - that's the intent, that's the mission, that's the vision," Mangano says in a paraphrase of the council's motto, "Domicilia Omnibus Americanus." "You chart [intentions] by the resources invested."

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