Homelessness and human rights

A person lies on a sidewalk in New York, United States, 13 August 2015. © EPA/Justin Lane

"Homelessness is a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life. It is a prima facie violation of the right to housing and violates a number of other human rights in addition to the right to life, including non-discrimination, health, water and sanitation, security of the person and freedom from cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment."

- Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing (A/HRC/43/43, para.30)


This page contains the following sections:

Introduction

Homelessness has emerged as a global human rights violation even in States that have adequate resources to address it. It has, however, been largely insulated from human rights accountability, and rarely been addressed as a human rights violation requiring positive measures by States to prevent and eliminate it.

Homelessness not only indicates a State failure to guarantee access to safe, affordable and adequate housing for all, it violates as well a number of other human rights:

  • For example, being exposed to homelessness impairs strongly the health of those affected undermining their right to the highest attainable standard of health.
  • Homelessness causes, every year several thousand premature and preventable deaths, indicating as well a failure of States to protect the right to life adequately. In addition, it must be noted the right to life entails in itself more than mere survival, as it encompasses the core notion that everyone has the right to enjoy her or his life in dignity.
  • Homelessness is stigmatized and often addressed with criminalization, violence, and aggressive policies that violate, rather than safeguard, the rights of the persons involved.
  • Persons experiencing homelessness are also often discriminated on the basis of their housing status or due to their lack of official address, affecting their political, economic and social rights, such as their right to participation in elections, their right to work, or their right to access certain social benefits.

Only few States have laws that allow people in situation of homelessness to claim access to housing that is adequate, affordable and ensures privacy, beyond regulations governing access to collective emergency shelters. Similarly only few courts have so far taken the courage to oblige public authorities to take all reasonable steps to eliminate homelessness, based on national, constitutional or international human rights obligations.

Video


Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing on homelessness, March 2016

Campaign by OHCHR and Free & Equal United Nations

Cover: Everyone  deserves a safe and loving home – LGBTQ+ youth included

Everyone deserves a safe and loving home – LGBTQ+ youth included
OHCHR, Free & Equal United Nations and True Colors United have embarked during the year 2020/2021 on a campaign to prevent and eliminate LGBTIQ+ youth homelessness, read more…

Fact sheet - What everybody and governments can do to prevent and end LGBTIQ+ youth homelessness
PDF: العربية | 中文 | English | Français | русский | Español

Definition of homelessness

Experiencing homelessness means not having stable, safe and adequate housing, nor the means and ability of obtaining it. It should be noted that international agencies, governments, researchers or civil society have adopted different definitions of homelessness depending on language, socioeconomic conditions, cultural norms, the groups affected and the purpose for which homelessness is being defined. The experience of homelessness is not fully captured without a richer definition that goes beyond the deprivation of physical shelter. Reducing the matter to putting a roof over one’s head, would fail to take into account the loss of social connection — the feeling of “belonging nowhere” — and the social exclusion experienced by persons living in homelessness.

Definitions of homelessness used by UN Habitat, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Institute of Global Homelessness or the European Federation of Organizations Working on Homelessness (FEANTSA) have all in common to include various forms of homelessness: persons living in the streets, in open spaces or cars; persons living in temporary emergency accommodation, in women’s shelters, in camps or other temporary accommodation provided to internally displaced persons, refugees or migrants; and persons living in severely inadequate and insecure housing, such as residents of informal settlements. Rough sleeping is thus only one manifestation of homelessness, but not necessarily the most frequent one.

Human rights standards

Homelessness violates the principle of human dignity enshrined in articles 1 and 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

States have recognized in Article 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including to food, clothing and housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. Article 12 states that everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of health. States must furthermore guarantee according to Article 2 (2) that all economic, social and cultural rights “are exercised without discrimination of any kind as to … national or social origin, property, birth or other status”, the latter includes as well housing status.

States have the obligation to prevent and eliminate homelessness

Homeless on Houston Street in Manhattan, New York/United States © UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran

States cannot rely on the argument that taking steps towards elimination of homelessness may only be considered at a later stage of development, claiming that all economic, social and cultural rights are subject to progressive realization. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has clarified in its General Comment No. 4 (1991) that States must regardless of their state of development, take certain steps to realize the right to adequate housing immediately and that in this respect priority must be given to those social groups living in unfavourable conditions (para. 10 and 11). Obviously, living in street situation or having no access to adequate housing at all, means living in one of the most unfavorable conditions.

Preventing and eliminating homelessness is a “minimum core obligation [of States] to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights” under the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The Committee has in this context clarified that a “State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary healthcare, of basic shelter and housing, or of the most basic forms of education, is prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant” (see General Comment No. 3, para 10 and 12).

In more simple words: States are not obliged to provide to everyone experiencing homelessness with a wonderful home free of charge, but need to make sure that everyone can access basic shelter and housing. Such housing must be safe, adequate and affordable to the concerned person or family, and also ensure sufficient privacy. Ensuring access to a collective emergency shelter is as an immediate response to a loss of housing sufficient, but will fail to meet human rights obligations, if living in such as shelter would become a long-term solution.

States must furthermore use “maximum available resources” to satisfy that everyone within their jurisdiction has access to essential levels of housing and other social, economic and cultural rights (General Comment No. 3, para. 14) Translated into plain language: Public funds must first be spent to house the homeless before considering other expenditures, such as embarking, on a programme to increase the housing quality for those who are already in housing. Secondly, it also means that States that have failed to reduce and eliminate homelessness must show that they have actually lacked the required resources to do so, in order to remain in conformity with their obligations under Articles 2 (1) and 11 (1) and under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

States should also adopt a national housing strategy that should “reflect genuine and effective consultation with, and participation by, all of those affected, including the homeless, the inadequately housed and their representatives.” States are furthermore obliged to ascertain the full extent of homelessness and inadequate housing within their jurisdiction (General Comment No. 4, para. 13).

Nobody should be evicted into homelessness

General Comment No. 7 (1997) states that: “Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available.” (para. 16)

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights decided in López Albán v. Spain (communication No. 37/2018, E/C.12/66/D/37/2018) that the “State party has a duty to take reasonable measures to provide alternative housing to persons who are left homeless as a result of eviction, irrespective of whether the eviction is initiated by its authorities or by private entities such as the owner of the property.” (para. 9.3) The Committee further clarified that “in certain circumstances, States parties may be able to demonstrate that, despite having made every effort, to the maximum of available resources, it has been impossible to offer a permanent, alternative residence to an evicted person who needs alternative accommodation. In such circumstances, temporary accommodation that does not meet all the requirements of an adequate alternative dwelling may be used. However, States must endeavour to ensure that the temporary accommodation protects the human dignity of the persons evicted, meets all safety and security requirements and does not become a permanent solution, but is a step towards obtaining adequate housing.” (para. 9.4)

In Ben Djazia and Bellili v. Spain (Communication 5/2015, E/C.12/61/D/5/2015) the Committee underlined that “the obligation of Statesparties to provide, to the maximum of their available resources, alternative accommodation for evicted persons who need it includes the protection of the family unit, especially when the persons are responsible for the care and education of dependent children.” (para. 15.4).

Evictions into homelessness violate as well Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which specifies “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”

The Human Rights Committee has ruled in Liliana Assenova Naibidenova et. al. v. Bulgaria (Communication No. 2073/2011, CCPR/C/106/D/2073/2011) that an eviction of an impoverished Roma community would constitute a violation of article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) if it enforced an eviction order so long as satisfactory replacement housing is not available immediately. The Committee held that not giving due consideration to the consequences of the eviction from the settlement, such as the risk of becoming homeless, the State party would interfere arbitrarily with the homes of the people living in the settlement, and thereby violate the rights of those to be evicted under article 17 of the Covenant. Consequently, the State was under the obligation to refrain from evicting the community until satisfactory housing was available (para 14.7,15 and16).

In Gregopoulos et al. v. Greece (CCPR/C/99/D/1799/2008) the Human Rights Committee found that the demolition of shed inhabited by a Roma family and prevention of construction of a new home by municipal authorities amounted to a violation of articles 17 (interference with home), 23 (protection of family) and 27 (right to enjoy one culture) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Homelessness as a violation of the right to life

Homeless persons rising with the morning sun in Calcutta/India © UN Photo/Jean Pierre Laffont

The obligation to prevent and eliminate homelessness is also derived from the obligation of States to protect the right to life enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Homelessness – in particular if individuals are exposed to it over a longer time or repeatedly - does not only result in early preventable death, it also violates the right of individuals to enjoy a life in dignity (see A/HRC/71/310).

The Human Rights Committee has underlined in General Comment No. 36 (2019) that “the duty to protect the right to life requires States parties to take special measures of protection towards persons in vulnerable situations whose lives have been placed at particular risk … They may also include children, especially children in street situations” (para. 23). “The duty to protect life also implies that States parties should take appropriate measures to address the general conditions in society that may give rise to direct threats to life or prevent individuals from enjoying their right to life with dignity. These general conditions may include … deprivation of indigenous peoples’ land, territories and resources… widespread hunger and malnutrition…and homelessness. The measures called for to address adequate conditions for protecting the right to life include, where necessary, measures designed to ensure access without delay by individuals to essential goods and services such as food, water, shelter, health care, electricity and sanitation, and other measures designed to promote and facilitate adequate general conditions, such as … social housing programmes.” (para. 26)

Homelessness and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

Persons in situations of homelessness have frequently been subjected to criminalization and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment by public or private persons, including public and private security officials, arbitrary detention or forced institutionalization, deportation and other interference into their freedom of movement, denial of health care or other public services and benefits, including access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The mere existence of homelessness has so far not yet been considered in itself as cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, prohibited by Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, State failure to prevent or respond to persons in situation of homelessness can amount to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

For example eviction into homelessness, forcible return to a country in which the person would face homelessness and destitution, or the refusal of public institutions to offer persons in situation of homelessness alternative accommodation and subsistence has - depending on the particular circumstances – been found to amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international human rights law (see Jasin v. Denmark, CCPR/C/114/D/2360/2014; A.H.G v. Canada, CCPR/C/113/D/2091/2011, European Court of Human Rights 202 (2020)N.H. and Others v. France, application nos. 28820/13, 75547/13 and 13114/15).

Children in street situations

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has established in its General Comment No. 21 (2017) detailed recommendations for safeguarding the rights of children in street situations, including on the issue of criminalization of homelessness of children and aggressive policies to ‘tackle homelessness’ without respect for human rights. The General comment highlights various human rights norms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that have to be respected in relation to children in street situation.

Resolutions

The Human Rights Council, Geneva © OHCHR

The Human Rights Council has expressed in resolution 37/4 (2018) concern that the “that the right to adequate housing is not realized for many throughout the world and that millions … are homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness, and recognizing that this situation should be addressed by urgent and immediate measures by States… and with the support, where necessary, of the international community”. The Council called inter alia upon States ”to ensure that the principles of equality and non-discrimination are respected when fulfilling the right to adequate housing, and in this respect to take measures to the maximum of available resources to address systemic homelessness and deprivation of housing.”

Human Rights Council Resolution 43/14 (2020) called furthermore on States to “take all measures necessary to eliminate legislation that criminalized homelessness, and to take positive measures with a view to prevent and eliminate homeless by adoption and implementing laws, administrative orders, cross-sectional strategies and programmes at all levels that are, among others, gender-, age- and disability-responsive and based on international human rights law.”

In 2020, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations adopted resolution 2020/7, on affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness, which among other:

  • Calls upon Member States to collect and harmonize the use of disaggregated data on demographics related to homelessness to enable policymaking (para. 12)
  • Recognizes that adequate temporary accommodations can be useful for those person who have lost their homes because of humanitarian emergencies… and that assistance for their transition to permanent housing should be provided in a timely manner (para.30)
  • Recognizes the need to address family homelessness, including through gender-sensitive policies and resources allocation and appropriate support service for families to break the cycle of intergenerational homelessness (para.31)
  • Calls upon Member States to combat discrimination and negative stereotypes against people experiencing homelessness (para. 34)
  • Recognizes that Government have the primary responsibility to end homelessness … and encourages all actors to build a broad-based partnership at all levels to prevent people from falling into homelessness, support those experiencing homelessness and develop long-term sustainable solutions to end homelessness (para. 35)

SDG11

All States have also made an international commitment to eliminate homelessness when adopting the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. Under Sustainable Development Goal Target 11.1 States have agreed to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, and upgrade slums” by 2030, which implies as well the requirement to eliminate homelessness.

Guidelines of the Special Rapporteur

TheGuidelines for the Implementation of the Right to Adequate Housing, developed by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to adequate housing underline the obligation of States to eliminate homelessness in the shortest possible time and to stop the criminalization of persons living in homelessness (Guideline No.5).
The Guidelines outline that homelessness is a profound assault on dignity, social inclusion and the right to life. They state that States should:

  • provide access to safe, secure and dignified emergency accommodation, with necessary supports and without discrimination on any grounds, and take special measures to protect the rights of children in street situations;
  • provide individuals and families with access to adequate permanent housing so as to avoid them being compelled to rely emergency accommodation for extended periods; and
  • provide, within their justice system, alternative procedures for dealing with minor offences of homeless people to help them break the cycle of criminalization, incarceration and homelessness. Police should be trained to interact with homeless persons in a manner than respects and promotes their dignity and rights (para. 33).

The Special Rapporteur also issued specific Guidelines on protecting those living in homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Basic Principles and Guidelines on development based evictions and displacement (A/HRC/4/18, Annex I), underline that:

"Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. The State must make provision for the adoption of all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, especially for those who are unable to provide for themselves, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available and provided. Alternative housing should be situated as close as possible to the original place of residence and source of livelihood of those evicted."

Reports by the Special Rapporteur

Homelessness: a global human rights crisis (2015)

For her report to the Human Rights Council, 31st session, the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, focuses on the intimate link between homelessness and the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing, as well as virtually all other human rights, including the right to life and non-discrimination. The report explores how homelessness is understood and manifests in diverse social, cultural, economic and even linguistic contexts. It looks at homelessness both as a serious deprivation of access to housing and as an extreme form of social exclusion, discrimination and loss of dignity. It identifies less visible experiences of homelessness, particularly among women.

The Special Rapporteur presented the report to the Human Rights Council in March 2016. View the report page or get the report (A/HRC/31/54) in all 6 UN languages.

View report summary
PDF: English | Français | Portuguese | Español

Causes and impacts of homelessness (2005)

This report focuses on homelessness and its causes and impacts, including on women, children, youth, indigenous peoples and people living with mental illness, from a human rights perspective. Causes are diverse and multifaceted, including a lack of affordable housing, speculation, privatization of civic services, and unplanned urban migration. Added to this is destruction and displacement caused by conflicts or natural disasters, and urban “gentrification” that is pushing low-income families into precarious situations, including homelessness.

Access the full report (E/CN.4/2005/48) in all 6 UN languages

The right to life and the right to adequate housing: the indivisibility and interdependence between these rights (2016)

The right to adequate housing is too frequently disconnected from the right to life and core human rights values, treated more as a policy aspiration than as a fundamental right which demands timely rights based responses and access to justice. Violations of the right to life have been addressed primarily in cases where direct action or deliberate omissions by States have deprived or threatened to deprive individuals of life. The failure of States to address systemic deprivations of the right to life tied to poverty, grossly inadequate housing and homelessness have not received the same attention.

View report page or access directly the report (A/71/310) in all six UN languages

Statements and press releases

The following are a selection of recent statements and press releases by the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing referring to homelessness.

    18 March 2020 - “Housing, the front line defence against the COVID-19 outbreak,” says UN expert

    5 March 2020 - Global housing crisis results in mass human rights violations

    12 August 2019 - The right to housing of LGBT youth: an urgent task in the SDG agenda setting

    4 March 2019 - States are failing millions mired in housing crisis, says UN expert

    20 June 2018 - Hungary: UN expert expresses outrage at attempt to criminalize homelessness

    3 March 2017 - Proposed “Homeless Ban” in Australia cause for concern – UN Expert

    26 June 2016 - “Homelessness, a human catastrophe” – UN Expert hails media push to spark debate in San Francisco

    3 March 2016 - Homelessness affects every single country and is spreading with impunity – New UN report

Amicus Curiae submission

On 11 December 2018 the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing submitted an Amicus Curiae to the Constitutional Court of Hungary concerning amendments to section 178/B of the Act II of 2012 on misdemeanors, in relation to persons residing in public spaces as habitual dwelling.

The submission includes the views expressed by the Special Rapporteur on changes to a national law that would make residing in public spaces a petty offence punishable by community service work or confinement.

Letter to Hungary on criminalization of homeless people, 20 June 2018

Response by the Government of Hungary, 17 August 2018

Communications - Complaints

The Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing can consider complaints on alleged violations of the right to adequate housing, including in situations where such violations are likely to occur in the future. Such complaints are considered under the communications procedure of Special Procedures.

Complaints can cover individual cases, but as well (draft) laws, policies and practices that may not be in conformity with the right to adequate housing and the obligation of States to prevent and eliminate homelessness. The Special Rapporteur may act on such complaints irrespectively whether the concerned State has signed or ratified a particular international human rights treaty or not. Complaints can be submitted online or by writing to srhousing@ohchr.org.

Communications sent by the Special Rapporteur to States or other stakeholders and replies received to them are published after 60 days.

After exhaustion of legal remedies at national level, individuals can also submit a complaint to a treaty body, monitoring a particular international human rights treaty, if the respective State has accepted to receive such complaints.

Publications*

OHCHR / United Nations Free and Equal: LGBTIQ+ Youth Homelessness (2020)

This fact sheet provides information on homelessness of young LGBTIQ+ persons, its causes and what everyone and Governments can do to prevent and eliminate LGBTIQ+ homelessness.


PDF in العربية  | 中文 | English | Français | русский | Español 


Secretary-General of the United Nations: Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness (2019)

In his report the Secretary General summarizes recent trends in access to affordable housing and on the global situation in terms of homelessness. The report contains analysis of the drivers of homelessness and provides a set of policies that can effective address homelessness, as well as recommendations on how countries can make further progress on these issues.

UN-Habitat: Expert Group Meeting on Affordable Housing and Social Protection Systems for All to Address Homelessness (2019)

PDF: English

This report investigates the complex causes of homelessness, the challenges homeless people face and the effects of homelessness on individuals and societies, and contains policy recommendations on effective housing and social protection policies.

OHCHR: Protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living on the street (2012)

Cover: Report analyses the  circumstances of children working and/or living on the streetsThe report analyses the circumstances of children working and/or living on the streets, and makes a number of recommendations to States.
PDF in English

The report in other UN languages

Fifth Overview of Housing Exclusion in Europe (2020)


Cover: Fifth  Overview of Housing Exclusion in EuropeEvery year the Foundation Abbé Pierre and FEANTSA publish an overview of housing exclusion in Europe. According to their estimates, some 700,000 people face homelessness every night in the European Union, representing a 70% increase in ten years.


European Commission: Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe: A Study of National Policies (2019)

Fighting homelessness and housing exclusion in EuropeThis report based on 35 country reports prepared by the European Social Policy Network underlines that homelessness and housing exclusion are extreme forms of social exclusion that need to be addressed through integrated approaches in order to deliver on principle 19 of the European Pillar on Social Rights.

UN-Habitat: Strategies to Combat Homelessness (2000)

This report is to take stock of global homelessness. It does not attempt to provide comprehensive data on the number of homeless people. Instead, it focuses on the context and conditions that cause homelessness and examines strategies that have been or can be used to combat homelessness.

Links*

Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

ECOSOC – United Nations Economic and Social Council

UN NGO Working Group to end homelessness

Council of Europe – Commissioner for Human Rights

European Union

Consortium for Street Children

European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA)

Fondation Abbé Pierre (site in French)

Institute of Global Homelessness

National Alliance to End Homelessness – United States

Shelter – United Kingdom

*OHCHR is not responsible for the content of external reports or websites. The provision of links on this page does not imply that OHCHR or the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing associates itself with such content.