Homelessness: International Human Rights and Local Law Enforcement

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Homelessness is a violation of human dignity that affects countries around the world

because of increasingly diverse social and economic factors.[1] Homelessness can be characterized by “extreme poverty, social exclusion, and a lack of access to basic services.”[2] In 2016, U.N. Habitat stated that 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing.[3] Based on a drastic increase over the past decade, U.S. Habitat estimates that global homelessness will affect 3 billion people by 2030.[4]

In 2020, the U.N. published the resolution on Affordable Housing and Social Protection Systems, which increased global awareness of the crisis.[5] Yet, the U.N. has technically recognized the right to housing as a human right since the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which accepted “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living.”[6] Homelessness is not a new issue, but one so on the cusp of overflowing that the international community has decided to pay attention.

“Negative” rights, such as civil and political rights, are generally considered more definable and enforceable in contrast to “positive” rights, such as economic, social, and cultural rights.[7]  The U.N. resolution on Affordable Housing specifically encourages member countries to combat negative stereotypes of homelessness, encourage temporary housing solutions, collect data, and create partnerships across government organizations.[8] Although these goals hold value, there are no benchmarks or explanations of what even minimum government action entails.[9]

With issues of enforcement plaguing international agreements that recognize positive human rights, what can be done on local law enforcement levels to uphold the right to housing? Many state-based attempts to combat homelessness are punitive, reinforcing the perception that homelessness is an inherent state entirely within the control of the individual experiencing it.[10] The criminalization of homelessness stems from the idea that people “whose poverty is highly visible, are subject to extra attention by the criminal justice system not so much for what they do, but for who they are and where they are.”[11]

Vagrancy laws, initially thought of as a part of “nature itself,” began in England in the mid-fifteenth century.[12] Although at the time, “vagrant” was widely defined, vagrancy laws intended to criminalize everyday actions associated with living in poverty and without housing.[13] Some suggest that rather than criminalizing action or inaction, vagrancy laws criminalize a state of being.[14] As the world developed and nations gained independence from their colonizers, vagrancy laws initially remained embedded in newly adapted legal systems.[15] For example, in the 1960s, Malaya, now a part of Malaysia, issued its first vagrancy laws, which allowed law enforcement officers the power to arrest individuals experiencing homelessness for essentially all activities associated with being homeless.[16]

Although many countries have prohibited vagrancy laws, some argue that through similar punitive laws and programs, the essence of vagrancy laws continues today.[17] Despite the Supreme Court deeming vagrancy laws unconstitutional, cities throughout the United States still criminalize camping, sitting, and lying outdoors, as well as “aggressive” panhandling and, in some places, begging altogether.[18] In addition, countries around the world use similar punitive techniques while hosting significant international events.[19] For example, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, police relocated individuals experiencing homelessness to “clean” the city.[20] Individuals that refused to relocate were eventually dropped at homeless shelters, thrown in jail, or forced to relocate.[21]

With the impact of vagrancy laws still lingering in so many legal systems, it begs the question of there is an effective way for local law enforcement to uphold the human right to housing? A study completed with law enforcement agencies across the United States found that many local law enforcement officers interact with the homeless population regularly, but only a small percentage receive any additional training on such interactions.[22] In addition, the same study suggested that along with providing specific trainings, understanding the causes of homelessness in their jurisdictions, and establishing clear agency-wise policies, local law enforcement agencies should create relationships with the community resources for individuals experiencing homelessness.

These suggestions show that homelessness is “not a permanent personal characteristic or state of being, but, rather, a status of housing insecurity that can range along a broad continuum.”[23] Some argue that the only proper solution to the homelessness crisis is adopting a clear Housing First policy that prioritizes immediate, short-term housing.[24] There are unique efforts taking place around the world to promote Housing First, like using shipping containers to create structurally sound, low-income housing in India.[25] Yet, a study analyzing Housing First programs across Canada found that positive relationships with law enforcement and other community resources are necessary to ensure the success of the programs.[26]

In addition to connecting local law enforcement to other community resources, the solution to global homelessness requires the same collaboration on an international scale. Due to the complex overlap between homelessness and other global human rights concerns such as migration, climate change, and mental illness, the solution to global homelessness also requires coalition-building across national and international human rights efforts.[27] In Spain, local officials developed a National Comprehensive Homelessness Strategy to meet the regional goals to eradicate homelessness set forth by European Union.[28] Although both the strategy and the goals struggle with precise enforcement mechanisms, the collaboration has spurred action for homelessness advocates around the country.[29]



[1] See Dep’t of Econ, and Soc. Affairs: Social Inclusion, First-ever United Nations Resolution on Homelessness, U.N. (9 March, 2020), https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/2020/03/resolution-homelessness/.

[2] Lufuno Sadiki & Francois Steyn, Destitute and Vulnerable: Fear of Crim and Victimisation Among Homeless in Urbam and Rural Settings in South Africa, 43 Strat. Rev. for S. Affr. 57, 58 (2021).

[3] U.N. Habitat, Up for Slum Dwellers- Transforming a Billion Lives Campaign Unveiled in Europe, U.N. Habitat (July 2, 2016),  https://unhabitat.org/up-for-slum-dwellers-transforming-a-billion-lives-campaign-unveiled-in-europe.

[4] U.N. Habitat, Up for Slum Dwellers, https://unhabitat.org/up-for-slum-dwellers-transforming-a-billion-lives-campaign-unveiled-in-europe; see also Dep’t of Econ. & Soc. Affairs: Soc. Inclusion, U.N. Sustainable Dev. Goals: Rapid urbanization and population growth are outpacing the construction of adequate and affordable housing, U.N. (Sep. 2015), https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/goal-11/.

[5] See Economic and Social Council Res. 2020/7 (June 18, 2020).

[6] G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), at art. 11 (Dec. 16, 1966).

[7] Philip Alston & Gerard Quinn, The Nature and Scope of States Parties’ Obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 9 Hum. Rts. Q. 156 (1987).

[8] Economic and Social Council Res., supra note 4.

[9] See Leila Lawlor, Three Cases in Point: A Comparison of Legal Access to Housing for Low-Income and Homeless Populations in Cape Town, Marseille and Miami, 2 J. Comp. Urb. L. & Pol’y 129, 144 (2017).

[10] Casey Garth Jarvis, Homelessness: Critical Solutions to A Dire Problem; Escaping Punitive Approaches by Using A Human Rights Foundation in the Construction and Enactment of Comprehensive Legislation, 35 W. St. U. L. Rev. 407, 428 (2008).

[11] Bill O’Grady et al., Can I See Your ID? The Policing of Youth Homelessness in Toronto 7 (Toronto: JFC & Homeless Hub, 5th ed. 2011).

[12] Paul A. Slack,  Vagrants and Vagrancy in England, 1598-1664, 2 Econ. Hist. Rev. 360, 360-61 (1974).

[13] Id. at 362-63.

[14] Anthony L. Beier & Paul Ocobock, Cast Out: Vagrancy and Homelessness in Global and Historical Perspective 1, 1-2 (2008).

[15] Id. at 15.

[16] Rayna M. Rusenko, Imperatives of Care and Control in the Regulation of Homelessness in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: 1880s to Present, 55 Urb. Stud. 2124, 2130 (2027).

[17] See Todd Gordon, The Return of Vagrancy Law and the Politics of Poverty in Canada 34, 53 (2004).

[18] Id. at 28; Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 171 (1972).

[19] Eva Kassens-Noor & Joshua Ladd, No Right to Share the City: Being Homeless in Rio De Janeiro During the FIFA World Cup, 12 Institute of Human Geography 51, 51-52 (2019).

[20] Id. at 54-57.

[21] Id. at 57-58.

[22] Robert Hartmann McNamara et al., 36 Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 357, 370-71 (2013).

[23] Jay Braindbridge and Tony J. Carrizales, Global Homelessness in a Post-Recession World 4 (Tex. Southern University eds., 2017).

[24] Joanna Laine, From Criminalization to Humanization: Ending Discrimination Against the Homeless, 39 N.Y. Rev. of L. & Soc. Change1, 13 (2015).

[25] Marziya Sharif, Jaipur Boy Raises Rs 5L in 3 Weeks, Builds Shipping Container Home for Homeless, Siasat Daily (Aug. 29, 2022, 7:06 pm); Maria Foacarinis, Homelessness and Human Rights: Towards an Integrated Strategy, 19 St. Louis U. Pub. L. Rev. 327, 329 (2000).

[26] Stephen Gaetz et al., Housing First in Canada: Supporting Communities to End Homelessness 12 (2013).

[27] See Gerald Daly, Homeless: Policies, strategies and lives on the streets 20 (Routledge eds., perm. ed. 1996).

[28] Isabel Bapista, Strategically Moving Forward in Combatting Homelessness in Spain, 10 European J. of Homelessness 90, 93, 106 (2016).

[29] Id. at 106.