In the society, there are classes of people who are socially excluded because of their appearance and lack of house. They loiter everywhere in the public places and beg in order to survive. This problem has been subject for several debates because of the abuses done against them. This paper will discuss the rights of the homeless and the laws legislated against them. Moreover, it will present programs that will address the problem.
Human Rights and Homeless Laws
Shelter is one of the fundamental needs of man. It shields the whole family from rain, strong wind, wild animals, and from any other harmful elements in the surroundings. A house is a place of security and of peace. A shelter also serves as the very foundation of a family as it unites every member in one roof. Shelter is also the place where family starts. It is the very place where a child is molded. In addition, it is where every member of the family finds confidence and lives life the way they truly really are.
In the streets, there are several people wandering with no place of their own. They sleep anywhere, eat by digging up from trash, and beg and meander. They are the class of people who are excluded for being homeless. Sometimes, they are discriminated, scoffed at, injured, and laughed at because of their situation. They are being avoided and being shooed away because of their filthy clothes and stinky smell. The worst thing about their being homeless is that they are deprived of their rights and categorized as bandits in the society.
In the Constitution, citizenship has been bestowed to every individual born in the American land. As legitimate constituents, the homeless have been granted with Constitutional rights. Moreover, as the parens patria of the underprivileged, the state has responsibilities for the homeless. However, many laws in several states do not respect the homeless’ rights. Even the government legislated laws that restrict the homeless from the legal exercise of their rights.
Today, the number of homeless citizens has escalated due to the disastrous hurricanes that wiped out several communities. From those phenomena, countless families and individuals have not yet recovered. However, help from the government is sluggish. At present, the homeless are still less represented, but they still continue to survive through alms despite the ridicules from the classes of privileged.
Definition of Homelessness
In every country in the world, there are always people who are homeless. Numbers may vary according to economic and political status of a nation. Anywhere in the public places, there are people wandering around with no particular direction. These people are called today as the homeless. Homeless has been defined as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (Institute of Medicine, 1988, p.2). Another definition offered is “an individual who has primary nighttime residence that is (a) a supervised or publicly operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations, (b) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or (c) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings” (Institute of Medicine, 1988. p.2). Even if the homeless people have no definite house or residence, they are part of the society acknowledged and granted with basic civil rights.
The Rights of the Homeless
In the US Constitution, every citizen has been granted with fundamental civil rights. The Fourteenth Amendment states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” (U.S. Constitution Online, 2008, n.p.). Thus, the people who dwell in public places are considered citizens of the U.S. even if they have no house to reside in. The provision further states, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (U.S. Constitution Online, 2008, n.p.). By virtue of the Constitution, the homeless have the right to exist without infringement from the government and even from private individuals. Their lives, liberties, and properties are guaranteed to be respected on the basis alone of the Constitution. In addition, the homeless have the right to due process and equal protection of the law that any violation that the homeless people may commit has to undergo a legal process. The law also discourages extrajudicial punishments or unjustified convictions. Furthermore, they are within the jurisdiction and responsibility of the government. Like any other ordinary citizens, the homeless people are legal constituents of the states where they reside. Being a legal constituent, they should be afforded with benefits and privileges from the government. Consequently, they should be given due protection and security because of their vulnerability to abuses from other people.
The United Nations acknowledges the existence of the homeless people. The organization also respects the rights of the homeless. As part of its goal of protecting the homeless, the organization created various international human rights agreements that govern every signatory with regards to their policies towards homeless people. For instance, the Vienna Convention has included provisions protecting the homeless individuals. Another international law protecting the homeless is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which has been ratified by the U.S. (National Coalition for the Homeless [NCH] & The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty [NLCHP], 2006). Several agreements have been ratified with the goal of protecting the homeless people. The ICCPR in particular, protects the right to movement of the people (NCH & NLCHP, 2006). The agreement further raised that freedom to choose place of residence and right to movement are essential rights that should not be breached by any country. Moreover, the criminalization of homelessness is highly prohibited by international laws. On the basis of “equal protection of the law,” acts of discrimination based on variety of statuses are highly proscribed. Furthermore, during the 1996 Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, such proscription was stressed (NCH & NLCHP, 2006). It also prohibits passage of laws that restricts “panhandling or performing life-sustaining activities in public, such as sleeping and sitting, and targeting homeless people based on their economic and housing status” (NCH & NLCHP, 2006, p.19). It is also a natural right of human being to find means for his sustainability.
Some federal laws have also been legislated to protect and care for the homeless, one of which is the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (Net Industries, 2008). According to the act, the unused federal properties are to be disbursed to groups in the community who are interested in affording shelters to the homeless (Net Industries, 2008). The elderly, handicapped families with children, Native Americans, and veterans are to be prioritized. The act also bestowed the responsibility of coordination and implementation of the act to the Housing and Urban Development Department (Net Industries, 2008). Notably, the act was named after Stewart B. McKinney, a Congressman in Connecticut. During the 1990s, the act served its purpose, but it went through several reforms. The budget for the implementation of the act has been reduced despite the increasing demand of housing needs. However, in the following years, the appropriation was increased in order to grant “emergency shelter grants,” more housing programs, and rehabilitation, among others (Net Industries, 2008, n.p.).
A group of lawyers has likewise established and maintained the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) that focuses on fighting for the political rights of the homeless ((NCH & NLCHP, 2006). In the country, the homeless people hardly exercise their right to suffrage because they are not allowed to register. The homeless are barred from registering because they do not have the required mailing address requirement. In addition, the period of residency is required which is hardly determined by the homeless because they occasionally move from one place to another. The homeless people also find it hard to obtain identification cards because they have no permanent address to state in their cards. Nevertheless, the right to suffrage has been granted to every citizen of legal age. It is a fundamental right that they should not be deprived of (NCH & NLCHP, 2006).
Interest groups also played a key role in raising the needs of the homeless people. The American Bar Association (ABA), for example, established the Commission on Homeless and Poverty in 1991 (American Bar Association, 2007). The duties of the Commission include “imparting education on lawyers and the public about the legal problems of the homeless and ways on assisting and ameliorating the problem” (American Bar Association, 2007). It is also tasked to train lawyers to provide pro bono services to the homeless. In addition, the Commission is tasked to afford activities that will enhance the awareness of the government of matters related to homeless people. ABA has been active in lobbying and supporting resolutions and programs which are for the benefit of the homeless, including housing, employment, and feeding programs. They are also filing suits against people or entities which violated the rights of the homeless. From the time of its existence, the organization has been devoting in helping and forwarding homeless causes. Other interest groups such as American Civil Liberties Union and National Coalition for the Homeless have also been vigilant in bringing suits for the restoration of the fundamental rights of the homeless people (Stoner, 1995).
Laws that Deprive the Homeless of Human Rights
On the contrary, many state governments deprive the homeless people of their basic Constitutional rights. The lack of the permanent address of the homeless people is enough to consider them as ineligible to receive public assistance benefits and food stamps (Stoner, 1995). They are also restricted to use the parks, benches, and lavatories (Stoner, 1995). Several curtailment of right to speech was prevalent as homeless were barred from begging. In addition, the domestic laws such as anti- vagrancy and loitering were imposed violating the freedom of the homeless. The severest thing that states government does against homeless is criminalizing their acts (Stoner, 1995).
According to research and surveys, some states imposed mean statutes targeting the homeless people. In Sarasota, Florida, for example, anti-lodging laws have been insisted despite the court's declaration of its unconstitutionality. The latest version of their anti- lodging provides that an individual can be arrested if found lodging and no other place he can live in (NCH, 2006). In Kansas, the “civility ordinances” are adopted (NCH, 2006). The ordinances basically prohibit panhandling, trespassing on rooftops, and sleeping or sitting on the sidewalks (NCH, 2006). Different treatment applies in Little Rock, Arkansas, because the homeless are being kicked out of the buses despite presenting a valid bus ticket. Meanwhile, in Georgia, the local government continues to adhere to the anti-panhandling law after the state was devastated by hurricane Katrina (NCH, 2006). Finally, in Nevada, police officers are sweeping off the homeless living in public places. The mayor even had the parks privatized so that the owners could legally drive them away (NCH, 2006).
Moreover, the number of homeless increased after the country was devastated by hurricanes. As a result of hurricanes, many families lost their houses and properties. Some also lost their jobs and hardly find a new employment. Many of the victims have not yet recovered. Although the government extended its effort in helping the victims, it was not enough to address the societal problems on the homeless. Instead, local governments continue to legislate laws to keep away the homeless people out of public places. Even the businessmen pressure the local government for the displacement of the homeless because they consider them as a threat to their income. Tourist spots also restrict the homeless from panhandling and begging because the homeless drive the tourists away. This conflicting interest is resolved by the government against the homeless. The authorities arrest the homeless for merely sleeping on the bench or wandering in the park. Some states grant the police with powers to arrest beggars. Other criminalization the authorities commit includes punishing the homeless to drive them away from the city. Furthermore, they enact laws to cut the help extended by private organization to the homeless. In Orlando, for example, the beggars are required to acquire a license before they can beg in begging special zones (Bello, 2008; The Associated Press [AP], 2007). A law has also been passed mandating private organization to acquire permits before they can distribute free foods to the homeless. Likewise, the statute limits the permit to each entity by allowing them to apply up to two permits in one year (Ritter, 2002). Other states also adopt the regulation of the feeding programs extended by several private entities. Despite the Constitutional rights of the homeless, several states continue to extend undue treatment to the homeless in spite of their vulnerability, struggles, and pitiful status in life.
The Organizations for the Homeless
The homeless people may have been annoying in the eyes of the government, businessmen, or tourists, but they should not be deprived of their basic rights. As part of the government's responsibility, they should allocate and dedicate more in providing affordable housing, shelters, and homeless services (NCH, 2006). In Pasadena, California, the police and health departments teamed up and formed the Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE), which aims to assist homeless person in need of mental health assessment (NCH, 2006). In contrast to restrictive actions, Ohio is lenient and even extends assistance to people living near the rivers or under the bridges (NCH, 2006). In Washington DC, business owners joined in putting up a center for the homeless where they can seat, wash their laundry, take a bath, and eat their morning meals. This way, the homeless spend their daytime in the center instead of loitering in public parks. Moreover, in San Diego, homeless courts were designated to resolve cases of illegal arrests and deprivation of the homeless benefits. Instead of criminalizing the homeless, various interest groups and local government endeavor to alleviate the morale and status of the homeless and at the same time ameliorate the problem. Through their efforts, it can be gleamed that solving this societal problem is possible (NCH, 2006).
The homeless people who are found to be annoying are helpless. They have no shelter to stay at when the night is cold. They have no table where they can freely enjoy their meals. They do not even have a source of food. As they are in such a pathetic state, it is only right to help them. Not only do they need help, but they also need to be protected from various discrimination, criminalization, and death from hunger. The Constitution basically provides the government with the responsibility to assist the homeless. Moreover, the International Law compels the signatories to provide the homeless due protection. As a signatory of the International Law, the U.S. must adhere to the agreement instead of tolerating the injustices employed upon the homeless people. Like any normal citizen, the homeless people have human rights that should be given paramount respect. Despite the annoyances cause by the homeless, it is not en enough reason to displace them from the society. Instead, effective programs and adequate activities shall be afforded to them so that every class in the society will be able to live in harmony.
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