RIGHTS-US: U.N. Investigator Probes Housing Crisis

  • by Haider Rizvi (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

Last month, the U.N. Geneva-based Human Rights Council sent one of its top experts on human rights to find out where and why working people in the United States are being denied their right to affordable housing.

Raquel Rolnik, who was appointed as special rapporteur on the right to housing, is currently visiting cities across the United States where people are suffering from homelessness in large numbers.

By the end of her trip to the U.S. this month, Rolnik, a professor of urban planning and management who teaches at the University of Sa Paolo in Brazil, is due to report back to the U.N. General Assembly.

'Housing is a human right,' she told reporters in New York during her visit to New York last week. 'It is a constant fight, a constant struggle for people to get government to ensure their right to housing.'

In New York, widely considered the financial capital of the world and home to the U.N. headquarters, more than 40,000 people have nowhere to sleep at night.

Official figures suggest that currently more than 130,000 families facing housing problems in the city, most of them from minority communities, such as Black and Latino.

Homelessness is on the rise in New York and other major U.S. cities, not only because of joblessness and the lingering financial crisis but also because there is no strong public policy on housing.

Although the country's total homeless population is difficult to pinpoint, a December 2008 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that of 25 cities surveyed, 19 reported some kind of increase in homelessness between Oct. 1, 2007 and Oct. 30, 2008.

Twelve of the cities surveyed in the report blamed the increase in homelessness on foreclosures. Additionally, 60 percent of cities said a lack of affordable housing caused homelessness, while 72 percent said the shortage caused homelessness for families.

'People across the board have lost their ability to live happily and securely,' said Brenda Stokely, an activist associated with the Million Workers March and Katrina and Rita Survivors Network.

Stokely wonders why in the United States, one of the richest countries on Earth, those in power at the local as well as federal level continue to lack 'moral responsibility to take care of citizens'.

During Rolnik's visit to New York, those who suffered as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 said they never received any support from the government and that they were still facing homelessness.

'We are internally displaced people (IDPs),' said one survivor of Hurricane Katrina who spoke at the meeting addressed by the U.N. special rapporteur in New York.

So what can international institutions like the U.N. do about it?

'The U.N. can't do anything directly. They can't change U.S. law,' says New Orleans housing advocate Sam Jackson. 'But what the U.N. can do, they can raise questions with the U.S. government about these issues.'

Jackson thinks that international pressure might force the U.S. government to address this issue. '[It[ can raise the issue about doing something to fix some of our laws,' he said, asking: 'Why couldn't we get folks from our own government to visit?'

In addition to visiting major cities across the United States, Rolnik also met with members of Native American communities who are suffering from extreme poverty and lack of decent housing.

This week, Rolnik went to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where elders from the Lakota nation told her about the U.S. violations of its treaty obligations with them.

Pine Ridge Reservation is located in the southwest corner of South Dakota. Its residents are facing chronic poverty and extremely poor public housing conditions.

By some estimates, up to 60 percent of the homes on Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with black mold. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, homes on the reservation are 'overcrowded and scarce'.

Despite the fact that Lakota people are indigenous to the land, many families in Pine Ridge are forced to live in tents or cars. About 26 percent of the housing units are mobile homes.

Activists say over 33 percent of the reservation homes lack basic water, sewage systems, and electricity. There is an average of 17 people living in each family home.

In a study released in 2006, the Tribal Council estimated the need for at least 4,000 new homes to address the homeless problem.

This year, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Geneva-based U.N. body that investigates charges of racial bias, ruled that the U.S. was failing to meet its treaty obligations.

While the George W. Bush administration rejected the U.N. findings, the current administration of President Barack Obama seems willing to take part in the international discourse on rights issues in a different manner.

U.N. officials say U.S. officials had raised no objection to Rolnik's mission. She says she wants to 'open dialogue to put adequate housing on the radar screen of public policy'.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service