UN: Criminalizing Homeless Discriminates and Stigmatizes

On April 3, two United Nations independent experts urged the Hungarian Government to retract a recently passed amendment that criminalizes homelessness.  The Hungarian Parliament had passed the amendment to the Hungarian Fundamental Law that would authorize national and municipal legislation to outlaw sleeping in public places.  "Through this amendment, the Hungarian Parliament institutionalizes the criminalization of homelessness and enshrines discrimination against and stigmatization of homeless persons in the Constitution," said the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepulveda.  "Such legislation will have a disproportionate impact on persons living in poverty in general and on homeless persons in particular.  This will not only impede the enjoyment of human rights of homeless persons, but will also promote prejudice towards people living in poverty and homeless persons for generations to come."

The Hungarian Government acknowledges that there are currently not enough shelters in the capital to service the existing homeless community.  However, noted the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Hungary does not have a national housing strategy or a long-term plan for the almost 30,000 homeless persons living in the country of 10 million.  In the meantime, outlawing sleeping in public places when there are limited housing solutions for homeless people and low-income households is contrary to Hungary's international human rights obligations of equality and non-discrimination.

Noting that the amendment was intended to circumvent a decision by the Hungarian Constitutional Court in November, which annulled previous legislation criminalizing homelessness and which generated more than $125,000 in fines against homeless people by different municipalities,  Ms. Sepulveda stated, "it begs the question as to how the poorest and most marginalized in Hungarian society are expected to pay these substantial fees, which only serve to push them deeper into poverty."

Late last year Pivot brought a lawsuit against the city on behalf of a homeless man named Clarence Taylor, who was ticketed for sleeping outside. Through Clarence’s case, we are challenging a set of three City of Vancouver bylaws which together prohibit homeless people from legally sleeping outdoors and sheltering themselves in any area of public property, whether in a doorway, under a bridge, or in a park.

For years we have been asking the City to up-date their bylaws to reflect the BC Supreme Court’s Adams decision. In that case, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a Victoria bylaw, which prevented homeless people from sheltering themselves when sleeping in City parks because of a lack of shelter spaces — a decision that was later affirmed by the BC Court of Appeal 

The day we launched our suit, Mayor Robertson released a response stating:

"Being homeless is not a crime. I have asked the City Manager and Chief of Police, once they have reviewed the details of the lawsuit, to provide me with current information on bylaw tickets issued to people who may be homeless. The City is committed to ensuring that our bylaws are enforced appropriately and are not punishing those who are homeless…our goal with all bylaws is to strike a balance, and they should not be punitive towards vulnerable citizens..."

However, in January of this year, the City began steps to impose a 400% increase of fines for a number of bylaws, including those that criminalize homelessness.  After a vocal response from the public, the City backed off of this amendment. 

These bylaws and the fines associated with them criminalize poverty and push homeless people into dark corners of the City where they are at greater risk of assault and exposure. They unfairly and discriminatorily criminalize people for being homeless and poor. They highlight both the ridiculous waste of public resources involved in issuing tickets to homeless people and a complete lack of compassion for the impacts of fines for homeless people who will never be in a position to pay them.

Canada, with a population three times as large as Hungary's, has an estimated five to ten times as many homeless people.  Like Hungary, Canada has no national housing strategy, and is the only G8 country that doesn't have a national strategy to address homelessness and access to housing.   Inadequacy of shelter space is a given across the country.  While it no longer is a crime to be homeless in Victoria, Vancouver's bylaws speak louder than the Mayor's words.  While they are in place, homeless people are put in danger and discriminated against.

Perhaps it isn't long before the UN Special Rapporteur issues a report that criticizes Canada for its discriminatory and stigmatizing bylaws that criminalize homelessness.