Homelessness as a Human Rights Issue

An Editorial by Professor the Hon. Kevin Bell AM QC

People without a secure and ongoing home number at least in the tens of thousands in Australia and the hundreds of millions in the world. Homelessness takes many forms and affects individuals in varying and complex ways. Importantly, homelessness does not solely refer to those sleeping rough without a roof over their head. Homelessness includes those with no permanent place of residence, those who find themselves couch surfing, individuals and families packed into crowded rooming houses, and women and children escaping an abusive home and moving into short-term safe housing. Homelessness increases the vulnerability of society’s most vulnerable, and it has been the subject of frequent condemnation by United Nations human rights bodies and mandates for decades.  There is currently a Federal and Victorian parliamentary inquiry into homelessness. As the number of individuals facing inadequate housing rise every year, homelessness must be approached as a fundamental human right, and not a privilege, to ensure equality, and to ensure these individuals, and families, do not continue to slip through the cracks.

Human Rights and Homelessness

The human right to adequate housing is one of the most basic human rights. It is recognised, and provided for, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in a further nineteen international conventions, covenants, declarations, recommendation and resolutions within the United Nations. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Being able to access adequate secure housing is linked to basic human dignity, and to better quality of life, including increased mental and physical health, and lower mortality and morbidity rates. The right to housing, therefore, is foundational to the realisation of other human rights.  
Human rights law is as universal as the air that we all breath. Homeless people possess the full dignity of their humanity and have the same human rights to life and health as everyone else. The individual who is sleeping rough, or facing the prospect of insecure, short-term crisis housing, is not simply a welfare case or a victim of social injustice. They are a rights bearer, as eligible for the same basic human rights as everyone else.

COVID-19: The Opportunity to End Homelessness

With the onset of a global pandemic, Australia largely heeded the calls of the United Nations to protect all people everywhere from the threat of COVID-19. With citizens restricted to the home in order to curb the spread of the virus, government funding has been made available to ensure the safety of those without a fixed address. In June 2020, very few people were living without a roof over their head. Currently in Victoria, most homeless people are not to be found sleeping rough in motor vehicles, on the streets or in squats.  They are in boarding houses, hostels, unused student accommodation, hotels and other such temporary housing at government expense. With a fixed address, and government-issued mobile phones, these individuals and families are able to be properly assessed by support workers. Perhaps for the first time, we have an understanding of the history, and current and future needs of the majority of those facing homelessness. With this vital information, we have an opportunity to end homelessness in Australia.

Currently in Victoria, the legal framework for homelessness is inadequate. The right to housing is not enshrined in the Victorian charter, or elsewhere, and there is no explicit obligation to end homelessness in any legal statute. Over time we have seen withdrawal of government from the area of direct provision of social housing and the gradual privatisation of housing as a commodity, as against a social right. Accessible housing is vital to lowering the numbers of those experiencing homelessness; ending homelessness requires long-term security of shelter, and the benefits associated with it, not merely short-term crisis housing. We are presented now with an opportunity view housing as a human right, and therefore, to ensure the equal right of all people, including the homeless, to lead a dignified life.

Additional Sources

Parliament of Victoria. " Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria: Interim report." parliament.vic.gov.au, 2020. 

Parliament of Victoria. "Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria: Transcripts and QONs." parliament.vic.gov.au, 2 July, 2020.  

Parliament of Victoria. "Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria: Submissions – Castan Centre for Human Rights." parliament.vic.gov.au, 2 July, 2020.  

United Nations Human Rights. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” ohchr.org.

Bell, Kevin. "COVID-19, building back better and ending homelessness." COVID-19 and Human Rights in Australia (blog), 22 June, 2020.https://www.monash.edu/law/research/centres/castancentre/our-areas-of-work/covid19/policy/covid19-and-human-rights-in-australia/covid19-and-human-rights-in-australia-part-3?SQ_VARIATION_2237355=0