Film director Anja-Therese Salomon talked to Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, in Ottawa to discuss homelessness and housing as an essential basic human right. As the documentary shows only parts of the interview, here is the full transcript.
AS: You are appointed by the Human Rights Council on the issue of adequate housing and I am wondering what the right to adequate housing involves for you.
LF: There is a definition under international human rights law and we normally say that it should not be interpreted narrowly. So, it has to be more than just four walls and a roof. It means much more than that. It means to live in peace, security and with dignity. These are broad concepts and it links to us as human beings. There are also characteristics of what adequate housing looks like, including affordability, security of tenure, being protected from bad weather and it has to be culturally appropriate. You get the idea, it should be accessible in terms of employment, or schools and services like water, sanitation and electricity.
AS: Does it actually address ownership rights?
LF: When I say security of tenure, it kind of deals with the ownership issue, but it does not mean that everybody has the right to own their own home and have a mortgage. But you should not have the threat that one moment you might be evicted from your home. That can come in different tenure forms as homeownership is not going to be possible in every circumstance and in every country.
AS: There is also the misconception around that the state has to build more and more houses in order to fulfil the adequate housing rights, but what are specific obligations of a state then from a human rights perspective?
LF: First of all, what we find globally is that people are trying to build their own homes. People are moving to cities, we have rapid urbanization right now, and people can often not afford their rent. So, what do they do? They form their own housing and people are quite skilled. Everyone wants a home and they build their own. That is then not the government’s responsibility, but it has a responsibility once their homes are built and those informal settlements exist. Obligations are then for example making sure those people are not getting evicted. It means providing them with basic services, like electricity, clean water, places for sanitation etc. In developed countries, you might think “Oh then it is an obligation in developed countries to provide housing, because we do not build our own homes, but even then, it is not housing work, but rather economic work to create conditions so that homelessness is not a problem. Sometimes instead of building social housing it would be equally important that people have access to income as there are existing units of housing, but people could not afford them.
AS: In Austria, right now small houses or even small villages are built only for homeless people. Do you think this is the right strategy to solve the issue as it does not address underlying causes of homelessness?
LF: I have noticed there is a very big push and drive for „housing first“ for instance and it is a similar idea, where you build houses for homeless people. But you said it maybe better than I can, it does not address the causes of homelessness. We as a society can decide – and it is a legitimate decision – we are not going to change our economic systems, we will leave them, we will allow neoliberal economies to flourish and for every decision that we will make there will be x-number of homeless people and we will give them a home. But let´s make this decision consciously and let´s state that that is what we are doing. But as you said, just building more and more homes for people who are becoming homeless it is endless to me unless we change those economic structures.
AS: What you actually try to say is that public policies should not follow the ideology of the free market, often assuming it is the personal failure of people becoming homeless by neglecting that it has structural and political reasons?
LF: I really work hard to get rid of this idea that individual pathology or individual circumstances causing homelessness. Yes – there is an association between homelessness and mental health issues, drug abuses and so on. But! If you take a country like Canada. We have at least 235.000 people who are homeless. You cannot say it is an individual issue that is a systemic problem. There is no way around that. If there are only around 100 people who are homeless, okay, then you might say these are cases with individual characteristics that are very complicated family situations. But if you have 235.000 people in a rich country like Canada, obviously, there is something systemic underneath.
AS: How could preventative measures then look like?
LF: Well, these are my dreams as a Rapporteur, or as a human being. Two things: All states around the globe have to recognize the urgency and entire situation of homelessness. This is such a life and death matter.
People are dying on our streets. They are dying in very inadequate housing that makes them virtually homeless. We have to recognize this as an urgent problem, as a human right crisis.
When we do that and when we recognize that it is about inequality and discrimination we need responses that understand that. This is where you get into structural responses. So often when I travel, I meet government officials and you know they are doing good work on housing issues. But it is at the policy level and they do not engage with it as a urgent human rights matter. You then end up with solutions that are only policy-driven. Second, all states – and if I can achieve this in the next years of my mandate it would be very satisfying – need to adopt national housing strategies that are based in human rights. If we want to address housing issues we need to use a human rights framework. This is what the United Nations has said itself, I do not make this up. You need to be able to go somewhere and say “Hey, I have the right to adequate housing and it is not realized”. This does not necessarily have to be courts, it can be also other ways for people to claim their rights. But a strategy has to build into this. This will allow remedies to be systemic.
AS: In terms of rights, there is often a double-burden. Homeless people are often discriminated in our society, there is a lot of social stigmatisation going on. On the other side, drinking or sleeping in public spaces is prohibited by law, which often turns them into criminals.
LF: That is a very good point, absolutely. It makes me shake my head, like are you kidding me? We allow conditions that create homelessness and then when people do what they need to do to survive they are criminalized. It is shameful that humanity would allow that to happen. I have seen some interesting progress on that front. For example, in the US as a result of heavy advocacy of human rights organizations, the national level government has said that it will give more housing points – which means dollars – to states if they eliminate any laws related to criminalization of the homeless. In other words, you get a bigger transfer payment, which is an interesting move. Housing is generally very decentralized, where you see these discriminating bylaws or zoning laws on the local level. So, you need the national government pressure and of course money is a big stick.
My next report to the UN Human Rights Council is going to be on the financialization of housing. It will look very carefully on how investment in property and housing is a major source for income of states, not just for individuals. If you look at India right now, it is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. It is really moving fast and I was just there in April 2016. What I saw was a little bit frightening. I saw the enormous commodification of property.
I mean, you are looking up at skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper and then you are looking down and people are living on their sidewalks. Inequality, you see it, like you see the gap. There is the ground, there is the top of the building and there is the gap, right in-between.
So, the question for a country like India is, okey, you want economic growth, understood. That is a value in our society, it seems unquestioned. Economic growth is seen as a good thing. Rapporteur is not going to bring down economic growth, I do not have that power. But what I can say is that economic growth has to happen in a way that is compatible with your international human rights obligations to make sure that there is not a person living on the sidewalk at the same time.
AS: I mean, globalization right now shapes the cities and I think how a city is structured also shapes the behaviour of its citizens. Therefore, we need sustainable solutions. Adequate housing was also addressed by the UN Development Goals, right?
LF: Sort of, it was. I mean, sustainable communities is there. It remains a target of one of the goals, like access to housing for everyone. At this point, this still needs some interpretation.
AS: One of the major reasons for homelessness is that housing is not affordable any more as prices have been screwed up by the real estate boom. A lot of people were also not able to repay their mortgages, which has led to a rise of evictions in countries around the globe. Government responses often failed in the course of this.
LF: That is a huge phenomenon in almost every city. From a human rights point of view, governments can regulate that. When these skyscrapers are going up, is there an obligation that some of those units need to be affordable? Never, or rather rarely. I mean New York has now instituted that, where for every new building there has to be a certain number of rent controlled units or something like that. There are possibilities. I do not reject the idea that the private market can be used for social goods. I think we must be creative. We live in a private market driven economy, we live with neoliberalism etc. We need to create conditions within this system that provides protection for the most socially vulnerable. That is what we have to do. People talk about private-public partnerships, whereas the private often ends up benefiting more than the public, but it does not mean that it is not a model that could work.
AS: I think we should also talk about the role of the media in the context of homelessness. Usually, the stereotypical picture is a homeless man sleeping on a bench in his park with an alcohol bottle in his hand. Like never a woman as it would seem like women never end up on the streets. This creates a common image of homeless people, where you do not look beyond people and do not listen to personal stories or bitter fates.
LF: There is a way when you walk down cities streets, who you see on the street as homeless, it tends to be predominantly male, but there is a reason for that. Women have children often and they do not go on the streets unless they absolutely have to. Women will do anything before doing that. They will hide, go with family, go with friends as children can be taken from them if they are on the streets and they may experience violence as well as women themselves experience violence. So we do not see them. They are not as visible,
I think that is one reason. The media often paints with a broad brush. To get in the nuances, that is not how journalism nowadays works as it seems to me. There are some exceptions. I am not sure if you heart about what has happened in San Francisco a few weeks ago, where for the entire week all the media joint forces to focus on the issue of homelessness to try to push the government. It is unusual as media looks normally for a quick story, but not going in depth.
I think of where women do get understood as homeless is always in the context of violence, which of course is important. It is a big cause, but there are many other causes, like economic causes, family breakdown causes etc. which – you are right – are not brought enough to the attention of policy makers etc. through media.
AS: So, how can we make homeless people more visible in our society?
LF: You mentioned earlier the interplay between government and people, where governments create a culture and a feeling and people then absorb that and it gets reflected back. I think we need to break that circle. It has to come from everywhere. Everyday people need to ask themselves in what kind of a world they want to live in. I ask myself that a lot. Do I want to live in a world, where I can live in this nice home and other people – just for chance or bad luck, the way the economy is structured – they cannot. Or do I want to live in a world where things are a little bit more fair? Where I do not step over people on my way to work. I think people should ask themselves that question a little more often.
You know, we live in such a consumer driven – I would call it the „I world“. There is a reason why they call it the I phone and the I pad. It is only about me, not about us. I think we need to disrupt that.
But governments have a huge role to play and they have an obligation. Citizens do not have such an obligation, but governments have signed and ratified human rights law that says you have to do A, B, and C, but they are not doing that. Forced evictions are happening, people are living in homelessness, in completely inadequate housing. We need people that hold governments accountable and we need governments to step up and say we will do something. The Agenda 2020 would have been a good opportunity, but you do not see human rights obligations in it. They did say no one should be left behind, but what does that mean? Let´s see. I think the media has a huge role to play as well to create a culture of human rights and create a more compassionate world.
AS: Do you think we are close to any of that?
LF: I do not know, I mean, if you look at what is happening in the most powerful country in the world with their presidency or presidential election and what kind of discussions are happening there. Not the discussions I want to hear in a presidential campaign. I do not see discussions on inequality or homelessness, but we just have to keep pushing.
AS: To conclude, the main argument you made here is that homelessness is sort of the evidence of the failure of the state, because it does not treat housing as a human right.
LF: Yes, it sounds simple and is kind of simple. If every state committed itself to actually do what it is supposed to do under international human rights law, we would not see homelessness. It is harder to get states to implement their international human rights obligations. But you asked me what can we do, how can we make change.
I really wish we could get people – all people, like governments, private citizens etc.– to, when they see a homeless person to think immediately “That´s the failure of my government to do its job”.
Instead of what most people do when they see a homeless person. “Oh, they are drunk, oh they are from this minority community, they are migrant or refugee”. That is what they do, they do blame. You could be calling your member of parliament or governmental official in your area then and say, “You know what, I saw five instances of you doing your job poorly today, at the corner there and etc.”.
AS: Another question that I ask all interviewees is what does home mean to you?
LF: Home means a place of love, security, wellbeing and kind of a refuge from the rest of the world.
AS: An indiscrete question: Would you actually date a homeless person?
LF: No, because I am married (laughing). No, absolutely, I do not have lines about who I am friends with and who I am not friends with. It is about the idea of social connection to end social isolation, but it is so difficult. Even for me and I am meeting people all the time who are living in homelessness and inadequate housing, but how do everyday people move into a different world where you have all kinds of friendships and social relationships. That is a really interesting question. Even I am meeting people in homelessness, I do not become friends with them. Now I have a role to play and it is not to become friends, but rather to represent their interests. It does happen though. I work at a corner at downtown Ottawa, where there are a lot of homeless people. You develop your own relationships with the people there and there is an aboriginal women that is there all the time. I cannot say I am her friend, but we are social acquaintances. We say hello, sometimes I offer her something or she offers me something, whether it is a tip about her life or a “good morning”. It is possible to create these relationships, but there are more barriers to that than there are pathways.
AS: This is actually one of the aims of our documentary. We interviewed homeless people as well, but it was not so easy to get in touch with them. It is not normal to just go to them and have a chat. I really felt this huge distance in our society that is just in-between us and people from other backgrounds. That is why we try to bridge that.
LF: I am also the director of another anti-poverty organisation here in Canada and everybody of my board directors has been homeless, but it would be highly difficult to hire someone who is homeless, because of the demands and the position of being in a board of directors. Even for me it is difficult to incorporate my constituency into my NGO. They have to be stable enough to contribute to the work we do.
There is such a distancing effect, you know, the picture of the homeless guy on whatever city’s street. This is funny, because journalists think that they are giving us a view into the life of homeless people, but I find those images distancing. There is something not real about them. They are iconic in a way and they do not have a texture to them.
AS: Thank you so much for this insightful conversation.