Why we should adopt the Homeless Bill of Rights

This post provides detailed arguments that were presented as part of the Consultation into Brighton & Hove’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeper Strategy. As a result of the Consultation, the Strategy was adopted on 17th June 2020. It says:

“The values of the … Strategy align to aspirations within the Homeless Bill of Rights as amended for Brighton & Hove by Housing Rights Watch, FEANTSA and Just Fair. The Homeless Bill of Rights should be viewed as a standard against whith the Council and its partners judge our policies and practices.”

We agree. So why hasn’t the Council adopted it?

The full text of the Brighton & Hove Homeless Bill of Rights can be downloaded as a .pdf or as a .doc file.

In addition this page provides a detailed article by article commentary.

What is The Homeless Bill of Rights?

It was launched by FEANTSA (the European voluntary sector umbrella organization on homelessness) in November 2017. It has been adopted by nine European cities so far including Barcelona. The Labour Party Conference 2019 adopted Brighton’s version as party policy.

FEANTSA describes it as a compilation of basic rights drawn from European and International human rights law. By endorsing it, cities reaffirm their commitment to human rights which should guide all public actors towards tackling the root causes of poverty and homelessness.

It was launched in Brighton in October 2018 by Brighton & Hove Housing Coalition, FEANTSA, and a British human rights organization called Just Fair. Many future Labour and Green councillors (and Robert Nemeth) were present and all three Brighton MPs sent in messages in support.

A petition calling on the Council to adopt it currently has about 2,600 signatures: . The petition was submitted to the full Council meeting on 25th July 2019; it received supportive speeches and was referred to the Housing Committee on 18th September.

What does it say?

Like other human rights declarations, it is a statement of principle for us to aspire to and work towards, rather than a legal instrument.

Article 1 is the international human right to a home. This document is not about normalising homelessness. That there are homeless people is already a breach of this right. It may seem strange to start with a right that we cannot at the moment deliver, but it is essential that it is stated at the beginning that our aspiration is to end homelessness.

Article 2 states that we should provide enough emergency accommodation and shelter, open to all, that no-one should be forced to sleep rough. This need not mean ignoring the national law relating to people without immigration status; simple life-preserving shelters can still legally be provided in the same way as under SWEP and during the Covid-19 pandemic. The other articles make detailed, practical provisions for ensuring that homeless people are treated with the respect for human equality and dignity that is at the heart of human rights.

What is it for?

Fundamentally it is about a different attitude towards the homeless. For good and bad reasons, councils tend to see homeless people as a nuisance, to be cleared away as far as possible, or at best as a problem to be solved. The Homeless Bill of Rights is an attempt to change this, to put the dignity and humanity of homeless people at the heart of policy and practice.

What are the criticisms?

It is said that Article 11, which among other things says that homeless people should not be criminalized just for begging, is contrary to the existing crime of begging in the Vagrancy Act 1824. The Vagrancy Act also makes it a crime to sleep rough; so arguably many of the articles are against its terms. However:

a) the Homeless Bill of Rights is a statement of principle for us to aspire to and work towards; we should sign up to it even if we can’t implement it all at once – see Article 1, the right to housing.

b)        This early 19th century Act is highly controversial. It is Labour party and Green party policy to repeal it. There is a current campaign by Crisis, Homeless Link, St Mungos and many other homelessness charities to repeal it, and the government is to consult on the Act soon.

c) Sussex Police have wide discretion on what crimes to pursue; they have chosen not to enforce the offence against rough sleeping in recent times.

It would be ample compliance with Article 11 for the Council to respond to the consultation and to indicate to its police partners its view on the matter.

It has been said that this document would give the homeless rights to housing and that this would mean they jumped the queue over those already waiting in emergency and temporary accommodation. That is absolutely not the case. The Homeless Bill of Rights includes people in temporary and emergency accommodation. It does not give homeless people more rights than everyone else – it seeks to make real for them the same rights that everyone else has.

Some people are very concerned about homeless people sleeping in tents, and issues of course can arise, different in each case. The Homeless Bill of Rights in no way stops the council from dealing with anti-social behaviour or safeguarding people. What it tries to prevent people from doing is treating homeless people as though they were as a whole a source of anti-social behaviour, or a threat. Like any equalities provision, it bans stereotyping; specifically, it demands respect for people living in a desperate situation.

If the Council adopts the Homeless Bill of Rights, what should happen?

The council often adopts petitions or statements that then go nowhere. We are not interested in virtue signalling. What we think the council should do, if it is wholeheartedly adopting the policy, is this:

For each committee whose work affects the homeless (most of them)

  • to commission a report reviewing all existing policies, practices and procedures that affect the homeless for compliance with the Homeless Bill of Rights, and
  • to commission a report making proposals for new policies that will work effectively towards making the council compliant.

This is where consultation and the help of the Council’s partners will be needed, and considerations of resources and timing come into play.

  • To change council procedures so that compliance with the Homeless Bill of Rights be included explicitly in the equalities assessment that every report dealing with the homeless must carry. Homelessness is not one of the statutory protected characteristics, but at this time of great and increasing homelessness, in this City of Sanctuary, it must be treated as if it is; and
  • To seek in all its relationships with its third sector or other partners to encourage and require where appropriate compliance with the Homeless Bill of Rights.

More Information

You are cordially invited to look around the site, which contains information regarding the campaign so far.

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