What does it mean to have a right to housing? I was wondering this when I was working with the ATD Fourth World team in Geneva, Switzerland a few years ago. Being American, I’d heard of civil rights, sure, but not so much about human rights in general. ATD Fourth World uses a human rights-based approach in our work with people living in poverty, but a few years ago that didn’t mean much to me.
Here in the United States we signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt took a lead in writing and signing it. There are five kinds of rights in the Declaration: political, civil, social, cultural, and economic rights. A human right is what every person should be able to do, be, and have. If someone has a right and it’s violated, she should be able to do something about it. And countries are the ones who are supposed to guarantee rights, so they’re the ones who are supposed to do something about it. I found out from Janet Nelson, a long-time UNICEF diplomat and ATD supporter, though, that there are rights that countries consider “enforceable” and other rights that they don’t consider enforceable. And it differs from country to country.
Apparently, the US as a country doesn’t consider social, cultural, or economic rights as enforceable. So even if we signed a declaration stating that housing is a right, if a person or a group of people are homeless, there’s no legal route for them to claim their right to housing. In the US people who are homeless depend on private charities, public housing vouchers, and homeless shelters.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In Europe it’s different. In Switzerland one effect of the right to housing is that there’s a period during the coldest months of the winter when it’s illegal to evict anyone. And when someone is evicted during the other months of the year, the city has to propose another housing option by law. Sometimes these rehousing options are substandard and people who are rehoused can stay in them for years instead of finding new and better housing as planned. Somehow it seems more human than being on the streets and having to rely on charity. There are still people who slip through the cracks one way or another and do end up living on the streets, but that’s not the norm.
In France a few years ago, ATD Fourth World was one part of a coalition of nonprofits that brought a lawsuit against the government at the European High Court of Human Rights. We said that the French government regularly violated its citizens right to housing when it evicted traveling or Roma families from public land (or sometimes even land they owned!) without planning for rehousing them. People in these tough situations spoke out as part of the process and we won! The French government had to put in place stronger protections to make sure it was respecting the right to housing of everyone living in France.
Human rights can sometimes seem dry and academic, but when it comes down to it, it means having a roof over our heads, having food on the table, having quality healthcare, and being able to live with our family. As a society, in the US we haven’t chosen to make these last rights a reality for everyone. Every society has citizens who slip through the cracks, but if we chose to strengthen the way we apply human rights, we’d go a long way toward making sure that many more of us would have the basics to be able to pursue the American Dream.