It is widely acknowledged that people experiencing homelessness endure multiple and intersectional violations of their human rights on a daily basis. People experiencing homelessness endure daily violations of their human rights. This is clear from their stories and lived experiences captured in the submission 'Promoting and Protecting Rights of People Experiencing Homelessness'. For them, human rights do not exist because they do not currently enjoy them. Addressing homelessness must be a matter of ensuring that the human rights of all individuals are adequately protected and promoted.
In December 2008 the Federal Government released the White Paper on Homelessness, establishing a federal agenda for halving homelessness by 2020 and made a commitment to treating people experiencing homelessness with dignity and respect. The White Paper, however, failed to explicitly recognise that homelessness is a human rights issue.
Why should we adopt a human rights-based response to Homelessness?
People experiencing homelessness face violations of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to participation, freedom from discrimination, social security, privacy and the highest attainable standard of health.
The Federal Government’s human rights framework and social inclusion agenda (particularly as they relate to homelessness) are interconnected; one cannot be achieved without the other. In order to achieve its ‘social inclusion’ agenda and effectively address homelessness, the Federal Government needs to protect, fulfill and realise the human rights of all Australians, particularly the most marginalised and disadvantaged members of our society.
The HPLC maintains that there are clear benefits to adopting a human rights approach. The essential characteristics of a human rights approach (such as the notion of accountability, the principle of universality, recognition of the interdependence and indivisibility of rights) operate to provide a clear strategy and policy position for the Federal Government’s response to homelessness.
Developments since the White Paper
There have since been three key developments linking homelessness and human rights since the release of the Federal Government White Paper. These include:
1. Development of a new Homelessness Act
2. The National Human Rights Consultation
3. The Victoria Charter of Rights
Development 1 – A new Homelessness Act
In November 2009, the Federal Parliament’s Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth released a report based on its inquiry into homelessness legislation. The Committee acknowledged the overlap between protecting human rights and social inclusion, recommending that ‘new homelessness legislation include provisions for the right to adequate housing to be progressively realised. A definition of adequate housing, including its essential components should be included in legislation.’
While the Federal Government has yet to introduce the legislation, the Committee has delivered a firm directive to ensure that human rights are a key principle underpinning the new legislative regime for responding to homelessness.
Development 2 – The National Human Rights Consultation
The recommendations of the Australian Government’s National Human Rights Consultation Committee (NHRCC) were released in September 2009. The NHRC committee found the main social and economic concerns for most Australians related to the realisation of the rights to education, housing and the highest attainable standard of health. Importantly, the NHRCC noted that although the right to adequate housing is not protected in Australia.
The Federal Government expressly rejected the NHRCC recommendation to introduce new human rights legislation. The Federal Government has instead adopted a Human Rights Framework. This framework demonstrates an increased commitment to human rights in Australia that will build community awareness of the interrelated and multiple human rights violations of people who are homeless.
Development 3 – the Charter of Human Rights
A 2008 report into the operation of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (the Charter) by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission noted that the introduction of the Charter in Victoria had resulted in ‘new ways of thinking’ within State Government.
The HPLC has had a positive experience engaging with and utilising the Charter to advocate for its clients. For example, the HPLC’s first Charter matter:
A pregnant single mother with two children was living in community housing. She was given a ‘no cause’ eviction notice, which didn’t provide any reasons as to why she was required to vacate the property and did not allow her to address the landlord’s concerns. The HPLC used the Victorian Charter to negotiate with her landlord to prevent an eviction into homelessness, and an alternative arrangement was reached.
Following this matter, the HPLC ran training and education for other lawyers about the use of ‘no cause’ eviction notices. There has also been a reduction in the use of ‘no cause’ eviction notices by community housing organisations in Victoria.
The HPLC continues to use the Charter to fight for our clients in disputes with government agencies, but also to work with government to ensure policies, programs and services respect people’s human rights.
Recent developments show the importance of contextualising homelessness as a human rights issue and that new legislation will recognise the importance of the right to adequate housing. Whilst these developments are positive, there is still much more that the Federal and State Governments need to do to protect the human rights of people experiencing homelessness.