Homelessness, Human Rights, and the UN Social Development Goals
Housing is the cornerstone on which people build their lives. Without access to suitable housing, essential dimensions of life become exceedingly difficult. The lack of access to housing significantly inhibits people’s capacity to participate in the economic and political spheres, cultivate and nourish social and familial relations, and pursue goals associated with human flourishing.
The right to adequate housing has been acknowledged in international human rights conventions and documents dating back to the mid-20th century. Its earliest mention is in Article 25 of the foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”
This right is reiterated in similar language in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and mentioned in several other conventions addressing more specific groups and issues, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, among others.
Yet despite how critical housing is to human functioning and despite the commitment of the right to housing in several international conventions, the issues of homelessness and inadequate housing affect virtually every country in the world. This suggests that although there is general agreement about the importance of housing, substantive action thus far on the related issues of housing and homelessness leaves much to be desired.
Fortunately, some recent developments suggest that a renewed focus and energy around these issues may be emerging. In 2020 and 2021, the first two UN resolutions specifically addressing homelessness were passed, defining the problem, arguing for better data practices, and calling for sustained action and interventions to address homelessness globally.
Further, there have also been efforts to more explicitly target homelessness within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are an interrelated collection of shared objectives with corresponding targets and indicators intended to spur action and monitor progress on issues related to inclusive and sustainable development. Yet while several SDGs intersect with homelessness issues (e.g., SDG 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere; SDG 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), homelessness itself is not specifically mentioned. The UN’s NGO Working Group to End Homelessness, formed in 2017 and comprising 30 organizations, is currently working to ensure that homelessness receives the attention it deserves with the framework of the SDGs and to advocate for wide implementation of the UN resolutions on homelessness.
Housing as a universal human right has long been embraced rhetorically, though less so in substance. By building on such positive developments as the recently passed UN resolutions on homelessness and fully realizing the potential of the SDGs to coordinate and stimulate action, we can change this dynamic.