Minorities and Homelessness in the United States and Europe: A Comparative Analysis

By Carmen Radu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 12 | pg. 4/12 |

Homelessness and Human Rights  

As others cited above have shown, homelessness among minorities is tied to social exclusion in other aspects of their quality of life such as employment, political participation, and interaction with other groups in society. From an international human rights standpoint, nondiscrimination is essentially a civil/political right and housing is a social/economic right. These two sets of rights are interrelated, hence certain violations such as discrimination affect the enjoyment of other rights such as housing; this relationship explains the overrepresentation of people of color among the homeless.

One example is the fact that a large segment of homeless black men have been in the criminal justice system, as highlighted by Rosenheck et al (1998, 20). There is a body of scholars whose research has found discrimination and racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system, which lead to an overrepresentation of African Americans in jails (Michelle Alexander, David Jacobs & Richard Kleban, Nicola Lacey, Peter Marcuse). Pettit and Western investigated the lifetime risks of imprisonment for black and white men at different levels of education, assuming that imprisonment, college graduation, and military service are passages into adulthood in one’s lifecourse, affecting overall life trajectory and quality of life, such as gaining stable employment. Pettit and Western found that by 1999, imprisonment had become a common life event for non-college educated black men, more frequent than military service or college education (Pettit and Western 2004, 164). They found that 1/3 of non-college educated black men had been to prison, while few non-college educated white men did. Whites in their early 30s were twice as likely to earn a BA (Pettit and Western 2004, 164).

The interaction with the criminal justice system has been found to be a marginalizing factor. Devah Pager conducted a study producing direct evidence that ex offenders were only half to a third as likely as non-offenders to be considered by employers (Pager 2003, 961). Furthermore, she found that blacks with a criminal record are less than half as likely to be considered by employers as whites with a record, and that blacks without a record are less likely to be considered as whites with a record (Pager 2003, 961). These studies and conclusions show that there is a strong link between civil rights and economic and social rights, which can explain why minorities are overrepresented among the homeless.

In order to understand the human rights framework, it is important to mention the origins of human rights. Modern human rights can be traced to the 18th century Enlightenment. John Locke wrote about natural rights and natural law; Immanuel Kant wrote about “universalisable duties” people owe to each other and constraints that limit the actions that can be taken against individuals (Fitzpatrick and Watts 2010, 108). Modern human rights are more comprehensive and did not come about until the post World War II era. Political realities led to the separation of civil/political rights from economic/social rights. Western countries only recognized civil and political rights. The Soviet bloc only recognized economic and social rights (Donnelly 2003, 33). This schism led to the creation of two separate documents, and the option for governments to pick and chose enforcement of human rights. Nondiscrimination is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 26:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (ICCPR, 1966).

The right to housing is found in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent (ICESCR, 1966).

In addition, a plethora of international documents encompass the right to housing and nondiscrimination:

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • UN General Comment No.4 on the Right to Adequate Housing
  • UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers
  • European Social Charter and the Collective Complaints Protocol
  • European Convention on Human Rights
  • 2000 EU Race Directive
  • EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
  • EU Social Protection and Social Inclusion Strategy

Therefore, I draw from Marcuse, Rosenheck et al, Tilly, Pager, and Pettit and Western, and combine durable inequality with the human rights framework. The human rights framework approaches minority homelessness within the context of social exclusion, and denials of civil and political rights affecting the enjoyment of other economic and social rights. Tilly’s durable inequality framework provides the deeper understanding of why such violations occur for some and not others. The human rights framework complements Tilly’s contribution by providing the mechanisms that change the benefits associated with exploitative set ups Tilly discusses in seeking to challenge durable inequality.

I argue that individual factors interact with structural factors such as poverty to push already marginalized people into homelessness. While poverty, neoliberal policies, and individual-level factors may increase vulnerability to homelessness, minorities are overrepresented in all cases because of durable inequality and social exclusion which lead to these factors impacting some groups more severely than others. The following section discusses the methodology I used to conduct the research.

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