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Rights of the Homeless


Homeless Shelter

Homeless families eat lunch at the Atlantic City Mission in New Jersey. While "the homeless" are often described as if they were a social caste, anyone can become homeless, and the vast majority of homeless persons are later able to secure housing.

Photo: Kristen Buckley / Getty Images.

The Big Issue:

According to a 2007 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 3.5 million people (including 1.35 million children) become homeless each year. Of that number, about 125,000 people--a group the size of the entire population of Hartford, Connecticut or Waco, Texas--are persistently homeless, but the vast majority of homeless persons are temporarily homeless.

Housing as a Human Right:

The most fundamental civil rights problem associated with homelessness is homelessness itself. Every comprehensive international human rights treaty to which the United States is signatory, beginning with Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), describes housing as a fundamental human right. While the United States has worked to provide access to affordable housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and nonprofits maintain a network of shelters to accommodate the homeless, their collective effect is far from comprehensive.

Adverse Possession and Squatters' Rights:

Abandoned or "blighted" property is sometimes used as temporary shelter by homeless persons. Under a U.S. legal doctrine known as adverse possession, squatters can claim ownership over property that they continuously occupy over a given period of time. Usually occupation must last at least 10 years (or much longer, depending on state law), making this an unrealistic option for the vast majority of homeless persons. Some innovative urban movements, however, have successfully used the philosophical concept of squatters' rights as an argument in favor of allowing homeless and low-income persons to claim unused property.

Police Harassment, "Loitering," and Panhandling Ordinances:

Politicians often worry more about homeless persons as a property value and public image issue than as actual persons--responding to homelessness with ordinances that make it illegal to panhandle, sleep in public places, or be homeless at all. It is illegal in Sarasota, Florida to seek outdoor lodging if one does not own property, even in areas that are remote from other human traffic; in Orlando, Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada, it is illegal to feed the homeless in public parks; and in Little Rock, Arkansas, homeless persons are routinely arrested for "loitering" at bus stations, even when they're waiting for a bus.

Discrimination and Hate Crimes:

Homeless persons are more vulnerable to violence than most, and violent acts against the homeless often go unprosecuted due to police bias, public apathy, or lack of evidence. In 2008, advocacy groups attempted to pass federal legislation documenting hate crimes against the homeless to determine how widespread the problem is. The Los Angeles Times recorded 22 such attacks in California alone in 2007. And mundane discrimination is almost ubiquitous, due to the stigma attached to homelessness and the fact that civil rights law does not yet prohibit discrimination on the basis of income level or housing status.
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