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Olympia must recognize human right to shelter and housing

Bias against those homeless is fought by recognizing their inherent dignity

After almost 70 years since its adoption, the moral influence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has been reluctantly accepted by the governments of the world. Even though the chair of the draft committee of for the UDHR, Eleanor Roosevelt, went to great lengths to remind people that the document was only a moral document and not a legal text, she also recognized that the document may become “the international Magna Carte of all men, everywhere.” To a limited existent, she has been right. There are few corners of the earth where the UDHR’s articles are outright ridiculed. Unfortunately, one of those few corners is here in the United States.

For many American policymakers, the sticking point of the UDHR is Article 25(1) which states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” So far, the political culture in the United States has been divided into to two anti-Article 25 wings.

On one side are those who share the views of former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who described provisions in Article 25 as “a letter to Santa Claus” that “Neither nature, experience, nor probability informs these lists of `entitlements,’ which are subject to no constraints except those of the mind and appetite of their authors.” On the other side is the view articulated by the Clinton Administration. The economic rights described in Article 25 may not be a “letter to Santa Claus,” but they are not important. Civil and political rights take priority. Economic rights could be granted as long as they do not burden governments or markets. In other words, they are not really rights at all, more like thoughtful suggestions.

Fortunately, this is changing. Over the years, it has been accepted that in order to correct grave economic injustices it is essential to codify certain basic necessities as rights. One of the most significant of these is the right to shelter and housing, which—in the landmark case Callahan v. Carey (1979)—has been legally recognized by the Supreme Court of New York. Even though, the enforcement of the right to shelter has been lackluster, its recognition is a watershed moment in the struggle to end homelessness, and its approach should be brought here to Olympia, Washington.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2014, the Thurston County Homeless Census reported approximately 599 living on the street. The overwhelming majority resided somewhere in Olympia. Of those, only 26% of the population had regular shelter. The remainder was either considered in transition (approximately 30%) or had no regular means to protect themselves from the elements (approximately 44%, the largest margin). Often there is an implicit assumption that people on the street are somewhat deserving on their condition, but the data shows otherwise. Only 3% of the homeless population in Thurston County listed criminal conviction as the reason for homelessness. Far more common sources of vagrancy were job loss, sudden economic instability, family break-up, and domestic violence. All factors that would be considered “circumstances beyond (one’s) control” if a common sense reading of the UDHR was taken seriously.

At the heart of this issue is an awareness of other’s dignity. Communities recognize human rights in order to ensure that their members form empathic connections with one another. Considering the intense prejudice that homeless people face, it is only fitting that we fight this bias by recognizing these people’s inherent dignity. Indeed, that was what Eleanor Roosevelt understood as the original purpose of the UDHR. Shortly after its acceptance by the UN General Assembly, she told the American press that it was the obligation of every nation to “give people rights and freedoms which gives them dignity and which will give them a sense that they are human beings who can walk the earth and look all men in the face.” It is time for Olympia to live up to that obligation.

Marco Rosaire Rossi, a graduate of the University for Peace in Costa Rica, is a resident of Olympia.


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