A right(s) response to the housing crisis
Malavika Vartak and David Breakspear
Housing is a fundamental human right, with a place to call home a critical starting point in building and sustaining our lives. Despite this, we are in a housing crisis that is disproportionately affecting people experiencing multiple disadvantage. People in contact with the criminal justice system are at particular risk of homelessness, especially when leaving prison. In this piece, Malavika Vartak, researcher and policy advisor at Amnesty International and David Breakspear, lived experience team member at Revolving Doors explore what is required to rethink and reset our approach to housing and homelessness.
The right to housing – to have a place to live in peace, security and dignity is a human right we all have – regardless of who we are and where we come from.
The cost-of-living crisis has wreaked havoc in the lives of people across the UK as it rages unabated. In addition to skyrocketing prices of food and energy, the affordability of housing has taken a huge hit and along with rising rents, the number of people living in temporary accommodation and those being forced to sleep rough continue to rise. The government’s promise to end rough sleeping by 2024 seems more hollow than ever before.
We are in the midst of a full-blown housing crisis and yet the government continues with its failed approach to housing, where housing is treated as charity or a reward instead of a right, and where a limited supply of truly affordable housing is rationed out by putting in place stringent eligibility requirements. ‘Business as usual’ is clearly not working.
The number of people experiencing homelessness is also a measure of the effectiveness of social and economic policies. David, [one of the authors of this blog], has experienced homelessness, and is currently also working with people experiencing homelessness. As he points out, those who are homeless are some of the most marginalized people among us. Many, often because they don’t get access to timely and sustained healthcare, suffer from worse mental and physical health than the general population. Plus, a poor and irregular diet, exposure to the elements, exposure to dependence on substances like drug and alcohol, the stress of being homeless, the violence (including physical and sexual) and trauma that many face, also contribute to this situation. Because of their situation, people who are homeless are often isolated from their families and friends, making it even more difficult for them to get support, and this can lead to loneliness, depression, and despair.
A safe place to call home is fundamental for our health and well-being. It is a critical starting point from where we build our lives and sustain ourselves and our loved ones. The right to housing – to have a place to live in peace, security and dignity is a human right we all have – regardless of who we are and where we come from. Thus, homelessness is regarded as an extreme violation of this right. As Amnesty International’s research last year highlighted, those most impacted by the failure of the state to apply the human right to adequate housing in law, policy and practice include women living in poverty, people who are subject to immigration control – such as those with ‘no recourse to public funds’ status – and people who have left prison.
People leaving prisons are among those at high risk of homelessness or ending up in unsafe or unsuitable housing. Prison authorities are required to assess the housing situation of people leaving prison and ensure that they are not left homeless. However, lack of sufficient resources and truly affordable housing often means that many who have left prison end up sleeping rough or ‘sofa-surfing’. The huge shortage in social housing also pushes people to rent in the private sector. A criminal record, however, makes it difficult to obtain not only accommodation but also a secure job to meet rent demands. David experienced a similar situation when he left prison. Without a safe place to live, he faced uncertainty and chaotic conditions as well as stigma when finding a place to live on the private rental market.
This vicious cycle that deprives already marginalised people of a secure place to call home, must be broken and it can be done when the government breaks out of its current mindset and recognizes housing as a human right.
The UK has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which means that it is legally bound to implement its provisions including the right to adequate housing. International human rights standards clarify what ‘adequate housing’ comprises – a place that has sufficient space, is habitable (and therefore free from health and other hazards), and affordable – a place for everyone to live in security and dignity. Providing access to basic shelter and protection from homelessness for all, is part of the minimum core obligations (obligations that states are required to fulfil regardless of the resources at their disposal) of the right to housing as well as the right to health.
However, while the UK signed up to these commitments nearly 50 years ago (in 1976), the right to housing is far from being reality for thousands of people. Today, the possibility of living in a home that provides safety (including from a health perspective) and dignity for many people is fast becoming a luxury or at best, an outcome of the luck of the draw.
Recognising housing as a human right in law, policy and practice is not only about making it enforceable in courts. It is also about ensuring that the government takes deliberate steps so that over time, the right to housing becomes a reality for all. For the government, this includes allocating sufficient funds for building sufficient truly affordable housing and being held accountable for their actions. It also calls for taking into account the specific needs and rights of different categories of people experiencing homelessness including women living in poverty, people who are subject to immigration control, and people who have left prison. Overall, it means ensuring that all decisions – social, fiscal, legal and political – of government bodies including local authorities, are in line with international human rights standards.
The time is ripe for the government to radically change its approach to housing. To pause, rethink, and reset to a rights compliant approach.