Human rights are for everyone, without exception, whatever their housing or immigration status. But that means little to people who are homeless, who routinely must deal with contempt and disregard from the general public and from some public services and officials. The Brighton and Hove Housing Coalition hopes that by launching a Bill of Rights for the homeless we can make those rights a little more real and effective. It is intended as a reminder and challenge to everyone to treat our fellow citizens with respect and courtesy, and to do what we can to help those of us who are in this desperate situation.
The rights are mostly already the law in this country, and where they are not they are in line with our international obligations.
We are launching the Homeless Bill of Rights (#BrightonHomelessRights) on Sunday 28th October 2018. We’ll be at the Street Kitchen at the Clock Tower in the centre of Brighton from 1pm, talking to the public, including the homeless and destitute people who come to eat and obtain help at this great volunteer-run institution. Then we’ll do the formal launch in the Hanover Room at the Brighthelm Centre from 2:30pm. There will be speakers from the European campaign (see below), from Just Fair (the UK organization promoting social and economic human rights), and from homelessness campaigners in this city.
Following the launch we’ll be campaigning for the Bill of Rights to be adopted by the City Council and by other public authorities in the city, including the NHS and the police. If the City does adopt the Bill of Rights, the Coalition will hold them to it, providing an annual report on progress (or otherwise) against its aspirations and demands.
The European Campaign
The Homeless Bill of Rights campaign [link] was launched in 2017 by FEANTSA, the European coalition of homelessness organisations, in partnership with Housing Rights Watch (see Appendix). Their concern was that rising numbers of homeless people across Europe were being met by measures to make them less visible, by criminalizing them and pushing them further into social exclusion and poverty. They launched the campaign to encourage cities to recognize the rights of the homeless.
The Homeless Bill of Rights is a compilation of basic rights drawn from European and international human rights law. Introducing the Homeless Bill of Rights is an article by Maria Jose Aldanas, policy officer at FEANTSA, who is coming to the launch in Brighton to support and promote our initiative.
The Bill or Charter of Rights has been adopted by six European cities, including Barcelona, so far, and campaigners in many countries are working towards adoption. It is a flexible document and the manner of adoption is a matter for individual campaigns. In our case we have adapted the Bill of Rights by doing our own translation and adding two further articles; we have the blessing of FEANTSA in this and in our attempt to make Brighton & Hove the first British city to adopt it.
Our Bill of Rights
This is the full text: you can download it here.
HOMELESS BILL OF RIGHTS
In accordance with international human rights treaties and in line with domestic law and the democratic and humanist values that underpin it, we, Brighton and Hove City Council (“the Council”) declare:
It is the constant concern of the Council to respect and uphold the rights of people who are experiencing homelessness, in particular their right to housing. While working towards that goal we are determined not to contribute in any way to the harsh and inhuman conditions too often experienced by people who do not have a place to live.
We believe that it is the responsibility of all individuals, businesses and organisations, and of all local authorities, including ourselves, to commit themselves to improving the living conditions of people who are homeless and to lessen the negative effects of homelessness.
To help achieve this, and in common with other cities throughout Europe, we believe that it is important to re-state that every person who is experiencing homelessness is entitled to the same treatment as any other resident in the city area. No one should be denied rights because they are homeless.
In particular we commit ourselves to making effective the following rights:
1. The Right to Housing
The most important right a homeless person has is to exit homelessness. Services supporting access to appropriate housing must be accessible to all homeless people. In partnership with other competent public authorities, the Council shall work to ensure that there are sufficient routes into housing to meet need.
2. The Right to Shelter
Where housing cannot be immediately provided, there must be access to decent emergency accommodation for all homeless people. The Council is committed to ensuring that there is sufficient emergency accommodation available to all, so that no one is forced to sleep rough for want of a bed.
3. The Right to Use Public Space
People who are homeless should have the same right to use public space and to move freely within it, and to rest in it, as anyone else. This includes, but is not limited to, access to pavements, parks, public transport and public buildings on the same terms as any other member of the public.
4. The Right to Equal Treatment
The Council is committed to ensuring that their staff and services uphold the right to equal treatment for all, without discriminating against the homeless.
5. The Right to a Postal Address
The Council shall secure that homeless people who need one have an effective postal address of last resort.
6. The Right to Sanitary Facilities
The Council commits to providing access for all homeless people to basic sanitary facilities – running water (drinking fountains), showers and toilets sufficient to allow for the level of hygiene appropriate to maintaining human dignity.
7. The Right to Emergency Services
The right to emergency services – social services, health services, the police and the fire service – on equal terms with any other member of the public, without being discriminated against because of their housing situation or their physical appearance.
8. The Right to Vote
The right to vote, to be included on the electoral register and to be given the necessary documents to prove their identity when voting in elections, without being discriminated against because of their housing situation.
9. The Right to Data Protection
People who are homeless have the right to data protection, with their data only being shared by public and other services with their consent and only for the purposes of providing services and solutions to them. Homeless people have the same right as everyone else to exercise control over their personal details, particularly their health information, their criminal record if they have one, their housing and their private life and family history.
10. The Right to Privacy
The right to privacy must be respected and protected to the fullest extent possible in all types of accommodation, including communal accommodation structures and informal accommodation lived in by homeless people. The Council is committed to working to ensure that all emergency accommodation provided can deliver on this right.
11. The Right to Survival Practices
The right to carry out practices necessary to survival within the law. While the Council strives for a city in which such practices are not necessary, we recognize that where people have no other option they will seek support from other people through begging or foraging for discarded food to survive. Such survival practices should not be criminalized as such, or banned, or arbitrarily confined to specific areas.
12. The Right to Respect for Personal Property
People who are homeless should have their belongings, including tents and sleeping bags, respected by everyone including public servants. They should never be damaged or thrown away or be removed without compelling need, and if they are removed they should be made available for collection without charge.
13. The Right to Life
The right to life requires public authorities to take measures to preserve life. When people who are homeless (including people in emergency accommodation) die, the Council is committed to ensuring that their deaths are recorded as such, and that in each case there is a reasonably public investigation in order to understand the causes of death and what might have prevented it.
We have closely followed the text of the European document, with two additions. I’ll briefly discuss the different rights, and why they are needed; I will be more thorough over Articles 12 and 13, which are our own additions to the document (although we hope other European cities may follow our lead). I will often reference the European Convention on Human Rights, which is part of our law by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998.
The Right to Housing
This is the fundamental right for the homeless: not to be homeless. It must underlie all the others. It is not contained in English law, but it is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11(1)), international treaties which the UK has signed. At present it is an aspiration rather than a reality; but it cannot be forgotten.
The Right to Shelter
While we work towards making the first article a reality, the entirely achievable goal for the moment is that enough emergency provision must be available to make sure that nobody is forced to sleep rough. I would argue that this is already an obligation in English law. Article 3 of the European Convention requires that public authorities take steps to prevent torture and ill-treatment; there is a breach of Article 3 when someone faces an imminent prospect of serious suffering caused or materially aggravated by a denial of shelter, food or the most basic necessities of life (R(Limbuela) v SSHD,  UKHL 66). That applies to nearly all rough sleepers and places an obligation on public authorities to remedy the breach. There is good evidence from France that the mere provision of shelter dramatically reduces death rates.
Like all human rights, this right applies to everyone regardless of nationality, immigration status or “local connection”.
The Right to use Public Space
Homeless people should have the same rights to use public space as anyone else. Otherwise you are treating their desperate situation as a reason to treat them differently, to clear them away, to make them invisible.
The Right to Equal Treatment
Underlying all human rights is the right to dignity. You rob those who are homeless of their dignity when you treat them as in some way different from or inferior to their fellow citizens.
The Right to a Postal address
This is very important for prospects of gaining employment or housing. We have some provision already in Brighton and Hove; this right says that all homeless people are entitled to such assistance.
The Right to Sanitary Facilities
It should be clear to everyone how important this is.
The Right to Emergency Services
It is very difficult for homeless people to access the medical care they are entitled to, and many homeless people say that the police do not respond adequately to their complaints or protect them from crime.
The Right to a Vote
All citizens should be able to vote, whatever their housing situation. The proposed identity checks on voting will make it even harder for homeless people to exercise their democratic rights and it is important that there be a commitment to making it possible.
The Right to Data Protection
We know that in the past publicly funded outreach workers have passed on the private information of homeless people without their consent.
The Right to Privacy
This is self-evidently important, and is protected by Article 8 of the European Convention.
The Right to Survival Practices
While people remain actually homeless, they must survive as best as they can, and they should not be criminalized for doing so. People should not be arrested for asking for help.
The Right to Respect for Personal Property
The belongings of a homeless person are entitled to the same respect and protection as everyone else’s. Our property is protected by the English common law. Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention also protects us against unjustified interference with our possessions by public authorities and requires them to take steps to ensure that they are protected. In practice, as with so many rights, this protection has seemed worthless to homeless people, who see their property confiscated or destroyed repeatedly. In theory it may sometimes be possible to reclaim property, but excessive charges generally mean that it is lost forever.
The Right to Life
There is no official system in the UK for recording the deaths of homeless people, let alone for investigating them. We see this as a fundamental failure of our responsibilities to the homeless. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been keeping their own record, collected from local media and other sources, and they report that 499 people have been recorded as dying over last winter alone. This figure is too low; they record 20 deaths in Brighton & Hove, but the Coalition is aware of others not included in that figure. It is so dangerous to life and health to be homeless that the average age of deaths reported is 49 for men and 53 for women.
Article 2 of the European Convention for Human Rights is the Right to Life, the first and fundamental right. Under it, the UK is required to have a legal and administrative framework in place to prevent threats to the right to life; SWEP, the emergency protocol for providing shelter in extreme weather, is an expression of this, as I argue in my blog on the subject. In addition, where there is a specific and urgent threat to life, the state must act. Where the right is engaged but people die, the article obliges us to investigate.
This article, which has the support of FEANTSA, commits the Council to keeping a record of the deaths of homeless people (including those in temporary and emergency accommodation) and to ensuring those deaths are adequately investigated.
Any one of us could be made homeless, or any of our friends or family. No-one is immune; for most of us it would take only one or two pieces of bad luck to put us on the street. How would we be treated then? We know only too well. It is likely that we would be abused, assaulted, spat upon; we might even be killed. We would be endlessly moved along by security or the police, or arrested for begging, or spray-painted or urinated upon as we tried to sleep by people who think it is a laugh to be cruel.
Human rights are for everyone, without exception; but it can be hard to believe that if you are homeless. What value does your fundamental right to human dignity have if you are treated as a second class citizen, or as despicable or blameworthy, through no fault of your own? So we are putting forward this Bill of Rights for the Homeless, to declare out loud what is already the law, to proclaim that we all have human rights, we all have dignity, whatever our housing situation, whatever our misfortunes.
Appendix – Organisations involved
Brighton and Hove Housing Coalition
The Brighton and Hove Housing Coalition brings together groups of activists in the City and the surrounding area to coordinate action and spread information and news about all housing issues. We are independent of local and national government and self funding. Our aims and objectives are to provide an independent voice that supports tenants, leaseholders, homeless and people in temporary or emergency accommodation.
FEANTSA is the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless.
Maria José Aldanas, who will be speaking at the launch, is the policy officer at FEANTSA with special responsibility for the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign, and the co-ordinator of Housing Rights Watch.
Housing Rights Watch
Housing Rights Watch is an interdisciplinary European network of associations, lawyers and academics from different countries, who are committed to promoting the right to housing. The right to housing has been recognised as one of the most important fundamental human rights and what we seek is the realisation of every person’s right to live in dignity and to have a secure, adequate and affordable place to live.
The network was set-up in Cardiff in November 2008 in order to facilitate exchange and mutual learning among housing rights experts and advocates.
Just Fair brings social justice and human rights together. They work to ensure that UK law, policy and practice complies with our international human rights obligations.
Jamie Burton, who will be speaking at the launch, is co-founder and Chair of Just Fair. He is a barrister specializing in judicial review, human rights, social and clinical care, housing, social security, criminal justice and environmental law.