Criminalization of Homelessness is Racially Discriminatory, Must be Abolished, Say UN Human Rights Experts

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND- The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva yesterday statedit remains concerned at the increasing number of state and local laws that criminalize homelessness and at the disproportionately high number of persons belonging to racial and ethnic minorities affected by homelessness,” and called upon the U.S. government to take corrective action, following a hearing earlier this month.

Using its strongest language, the Committee, which issued similar concerns during the U.S.’s last review in 2014, further “reiterates its recommendation that the [U.S.] abolish laws and policies that criminalize homelessness; implement strong financial and legal incentives to decriminalize homelessness, including by conditioning or withdrawing funding from state and local authorities that criminalize homelessness and encourage them to redirect funding from criminal justice responses to adequate housing and shelter programs, in particular for persons belonging to racial and ethnic minorities most affected by homelessness.”

The Committee’s statement is part of its Concluding Observations, following a two day review earlier this month of U.S. government compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, a treaty ratified by the U.S. in 1994. The National Homelessness Law Center (“NHLC”), which submitted a report to the Committee in partnership with the University of Miami School of Law International Human Rights Clinic, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Partners for Dignity and Rights, Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity, and the South Florida Community Development Coalition, as part of the review process, applauded the Committee’s findings.

The U.N. was clear today: criminalizing homelessness is racially discriminatory, violates the human rights obligations we have to our citizens, and it needs to end, now,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director at NHLC. “States like Tennessee, who just made it a felony to camp on public lands, despite the lack of adequate, affordable housing, and Missouri, passing a template bill criminalizing camping and taking funds away from permanent housing to put it toward internment camps for homeless persons, are giving the U.S.’s reputation a black eye abroad and perpetuating discriminatory impacts at home.”

David Peery, Executive Director of Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity (MCARE) adds, “The UN Report makes clear that criminalizing homelessness increases racial inequities, making it harder for unhoused persons to escape the trauma of homelessness.  We ask that Miami abandon its plan to deport our homeless residents to an isolated island.  Instead, we should use our city’s resources to provide permanent supportive housing to the victims of intergenerational poverty and racism who are condemned to live on our city’s streets.

Recognizing that the disparate racial impact of homelessness comes from “the high degree of residential racial segregation; the persistence of discrimination in access to housing … and the intersection with disability and gender identity; … and criminal records policies which can lead to homelessness,” the Committee also reiterated recommendations to increase enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, including obligations to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, and urged the U.S. to  “adopt all necessary measures to eliminate residential segregation, including by addressing the impact of exclusionary zoning and land use laws and practices that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities.

The UN Committee has underscored how criminalizing and punishing homelessness has racially discriminatory impacts and contradicts human rights standards,” said Tamar Ezer, the Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law.  “It is time for the U.S. to abandon these counterproductive polices and invest in real solutions, recognizing the human right to housing, including protection against forced eviction and the availability of housing that is affordable, habitable, accessible, well-located, and culturally adequate.”

The U.S. is required to submit its next report on compliance with the treaty by November 2025. The Law Center and other organizations will hold a Congressional briefing on the Committee’s recommendations in the fall and work with other government agencies to implement them.


The National Homelessness Law Center (The Law Center) is the only national American organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.

Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity (MCARE) seeks to dismantle systemic racism that leads to homelessness, lack of access to healthcare and voter suppression in Florida. By focusing our strategies on the most vulnerable, marginalized persons, we lift the floor of social services for all, and we celebrate the rich diversity of our community.  Justice for Black Americans is justice for all Americans.

The Human Rights Clinic (HRC), part of Miami LawHuman Rights Program, works for the promotion of social and economic justice globally and in the U.S. Students gain firsthand experience in cutting-edge human rights litigation and advocacy at the local, national, regional, and international levels.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

6 October, 2022
Type of Update:
In the News
Updates from our Partners
Cost of Exclusion
Human Rights
Use of Public Spaces
Campaign Partners:
Human Rights Clinic, University of Miami School of Law
National Homelessness Law Center

The Campaign to Decriminalise Poverty and Status is a coalition of organisations from across the world that advocate for the repeal of laws that target people based on poverty, status or for their activism.


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