In wealthy San Francisco, treatment of homeless draws UN condemnation
Nov. 6, 2018
As San Francisco prepares to consider a ballot measure to boost taxes for services to aid the homeless, a U.N. investigator has classed the treatment of the homeless in San Francisco and the Bay Area as a human rights violation.
Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, visited the Bay Area and spoke with about 50 homeless people in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.
She said she “can’t help but be completely shocked” by the treatment of the homeless.
“Every single person, whether it was in passing or in a long conversation, said they just want to be treated like a human being,” said Farha, a lawyer who lives in Canada. “What does that say? That is bleak.”
“I’m sorry, California is a rich state, by any measures, the United States is a rich country, and to see these deplorable conditions that the government is allowing, by international human rights standards, it’s unacceptable. I’m guided by human rights law,” she said, according to the news site SFGate.
The last count of homeless people in San Francisco alone estimated 7,500 people, though some believe they number between 10,000 and 12,000.
The city now spends $300 million annually on homelessness. In August 2016 it launched a unified Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. The department has said its new counseling centers that aim to move people into permanent housing, known as Navigation Centers, have helped move over 1,500 very vulnerable people out of homelessness.
The median cost of a house in the city is $1.7 million, with an average salary for a tech worker $142,000, The Atlantic reports.
On Election Day 2018, San Francisco voters were set to decide on a ballot measure, Proposition C, which would fund homeless services by raising taxes on the largest companies to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
Due to complexities of San Francisco payroll tax, the ballot measure would mean higher taxes for bigger businesses with a high concentration of employees or revenue in San Francisco.
The measure has drawn opposition from several influential technology leaders, such as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, but has the support of Mark Beinoff, CEO of Salesforce. The two have argued about the proposition on Twitter, with Dorsey saying the proposition could cost his payment processing company Square $20 million in taxes in 2019.
San Francisco mayor London Breed is worried the tax will cause companies with headquarters in the city to move elsewhere and take jobs with them. While saying its supporters are “well-intentioned,” the predicted long-term impacts on the city made him decide to oppose the measure.
A September poll showed 56 percent of voters backing the measure, though support dropped almost 10 points when pollsters told respondents how much it would cost in taxes, according to The Atlantic.
Farha’s report from the U.N. General Assembly, dated Sept. 29, is titled “On Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living.”
It addresses the Bay Area homeless situation in one section.
“Attempting to discourage residents from remaining in informal settlements or encampments by denying access to water, sanitation and health services and other basic necessities, as has been witnessed by the Special Rapporteur in San Francisco and Oakland, California, United States of America, constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment and is a violation of multiple human rights, including the rights to life, housing, health and water and sanitation,” the report said.
“Such punitive policies must be prohibited in law and immediately ceased,” it added.
The report said that after the U.N. Human Rights Committee voiced concern, the U.S. government introduced funding initiatives for municipalities to rescind laws that “criminalize homelessness.” However, the report advocated “more robust measures.”
Among those Farha spoke with were people living in an encampment before city officials ordered them to move during a “tent sweep.”
Such actions have negative consequences for people suffering homelessness, Farha said.
“It’s damaging because they always have to move,” she told SFGate. “They’re treated like nonentities.”
While officials sometimes say their confiscated belongings are put in storage, “more often they’ll dump everyone’s possessions into one dumpster.”
Farha said that in other countries of the world, such as the global south, there is a struggle to legalize encampments.
“Here, the struggle is simply to be able to create an encampment. In the south, there’s sort of a blind eye that has turned. Once an informal settlement is created, it’s established. Whereas here, they can’t create them.”
Resident complaints about tent encampments, needles and human feces topped 22,000 in 2016, five times the number reported the previous year.
Some tourism leaders in the city have said the homeless population and hygiene problems are causing a significant slow-down in tourism.
A 2016 count from the Department of Housing and Urban Development found almost 550,000 people to be homeless on a single night in January 2016. About 65 percent were individuals, while 35 percent were homeless as a family. About 40,000 were veterans.
California had about 22 percent of the total homeless population in the U.S., followed by New York with 16 percent and Florida with 6 percent.
The U.N. report criticized laws in rich countries that prevent the construction of rudimentary shelters by the homeless and criminalizes them even for eating and sleeping. States must help implement the right to basic housing as soon as possible, it said.
States must ensure that discrimination, harassment or criminalization on the basis of housing status are prohibited, the report continued. Informal settlements’ rights must be protected, and there must be rigorous action against forced eviction. The report said the judicial system should hear “systemic claims” related to inadequate budget allocations, failure to comply with homelessness response timelines and goals, and inadequate community engagement or collaboration.
The report was critical of police and security forces’ treatment of residents of informal settlements. In one instance cited, Canadian authorities spread chicken manure and fish fertilizer on an encampment to enforce a prohibition on overnight shelters in parks. After residents protested, a court ruled this prohibition a violation of constitutional rights.
Those who resist forced eviction and claim their right to housing must be treated as “human rights defenders” by authorities and security forces, said the U.N. report. The international community “should respond accordingly when their rights are violated.”
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