Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: The Invisibility Of Homeless People And Their Rights

Rona Ghanbari (2L)

When you make your daily commute to the law school, how many times have you seen someone sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk or in an ally? How many times have you averted your eyes, or maybe not even noticed them there? How many times have you perhaps even crossed the street, because maybe you felt a pang of guilt or fear? Don’t worry, the point of this article isn’t to make you feel guilt-ridden or cause you to go empty your bank account and hand out what little remains from your student loan to people panhandling on the streets—I just want to draw your attention to a global human rights crisis demanding an urgent global response including from Canada.

Like food and water, shelter is one of the most basic human needs, yet access to adequate shelter is something that eludes millions of people worldwide. On March 3, I was in Geneva, Switzerland to see the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing present her report on homelessness as a pressing global issue to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). Over the last two semesters I worked with the Special Rapporteur, Leilani Farha, and her team to research and produce her report to the UN on this topic through the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the law school. My clinical partner, LLM student David Tortell, and I researched various aspects of homelessness on a global scale. The research covered many aspects of the phenomenon such as country specific definitions and measurements of homelessness, structural causes of homelessness, which social groups are most vulnerable to homelessness, what access to justice mechanisms exist—if any—to homeless people in asserting their rights, and what stigmatization and discrimination they face as individuals and as a social group.

Rona Ghanbari outside of the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland - March 2016. (Photo credit: Rona Ghanbari)

Rona Ghanbari outside of the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland – March 2016. (Photo credit: Rona Ghanbari)

The process of assisting the Special Rapporteur opened my eyes to the reality that homeless people face each and every day. One of the things that struck me the most was what has been termed the “criminalization of homelessness.” Being homeless in and of itself is of course not a crime. However in many jurisdictions around the world, life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, eating, or going to the washroom, are illegal. This makes it virtually impossible to be homeless without punishment from the legal system.

Through my research I began to realize that some governments take the same approach to eradicating homelessness as I do with eradicating the long list of readings I have to do before exams: hiding them in a corner and hoping the problem just goes away. Experience shows that this is literally never the correct method of dealing with things. Homeless people are often viewed as lawbreakers or eyesores. Laws that criminalize the daily activities of homeless people typically seek to render them invisible: out of sight, out of mind. These laws are usually framed under the guise of public health and safety, stating that the concentration of homeless people in a given area threatens public health. In reality these types of laws are rather aimed at the visual ramifications of homelessness, and typically have the goal creating pleasing aesthetics for business and tourism. As a result, many cities have punitive measures in place meant to drive the homeless population elsewhere. Some examples of this are imposing fines, incarceration, confiscation of personal property, or forced dislocation based on laws or policies prohibiting activities linked to homelessness, such as sleeping, eating, defecating/urinating or creating any kind of shelter from the elements. These discriminatory laws don’t only exist in the global south, but are actually quite prominent in North America. For example in a 2014 report one homeless youth from Salt Lake City stated that he got five tickets in one night from trying to sleep in public, even though he had no income to pay for the tickets.

Prohibiting people to partake in these life-sustaining activities when they do not have an alternative is not only a cruel and ineffective measure for dealing with the root cause of homelessness, but is in fact extremely expensive for governments. Cycles of incarceration or fines only exacerbate the situation, and are costly for taxpayers as homeless people are kept in prison for crimes such as sleeping or eating in a public space. Furthermore, once a homeless person has a criminal record their chances of becoming employed or qualifying for housing or other social programs becomes significantly reduced, merely keeping them on the streets.

This vicious cycle is only one small element of a much larger issue. The Special Rapporteur wrapped up her speech at the UNHRC by giving a list of recommendations to states, and urging them to commit to goals to eradicate homelessness by 2030. The IHRP allowed me the wonderful and sobering opportunity of working on this incredibly important issue, and as I write to an audience of future lawyers, lawmakers, judges, and whatever else you crazy bunch get up to, I can only hope that the work your peers engaged in during our time as students resonates with you as we move forward, and we can all be part of a generation that recognizes human dignity and basic human rights.