News & Politics

United States Is Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading to Poor, UN Report Charges

The UN Human Rights Committee says the U.S. should stop criminalizing homeless people for being homeless.

Photo Credit: CBS New York; Screenshot / YouTube.com

Jerome Murdough, 56, a mentally ill homeless veteran, was just trying to stay alive during a New York City cold snap when he thought he found his spot: a stairwell leading to a roof in a Harlem public housing project. But that desperate act set in motion a nightmare ride through New York's criminal justice system that would end with Murdough dying of heat stroke in a Riker's Island jail cell. New York officials now say the system failed Murdough every which way.

When he was discovered, he should have been offered shelter. When he was arraigned, he should not have been slapped with $2,500 bail. When, unable to make bail, he ended up in jail, Murdough, because he was on medication for a mental condition, should have been monitored every 15 minutes, not left unwatched for at least four hours. It was during that untended time that Murdough, as an official told the Associated Press, "basically baked to death."

Now, as New York officials discuss the "tragedy" of last month and scapegoat one Riker's Island guard for Murdough's death — suspending him for 20 days — the United Nations has taken notice. Murdough is just the latest statistic in a series of needless deaths of homeless people while under arrest for "crimes" related to being unhoused, such as loitering or trespassing.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva on Thursday condemned the United States for criminalizing homelessness, calling it "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" that violates international human rights treaty obligations. It also called upon the U.S. government to take corrective action, following a two-day review of U.S. government compliance with a human rights treaty ratified in 1992.

"I'm just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter," said Sir Nigel Rodley, chairman of the committee in closing statements on the U.S. review. "The idea of criminalizing people who don't have shelter is something that I think many of my colleagues might find as difficult as I do to even begin to comprehend."

The Committee called on the U.S. to abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels, intensify efforts to find solutions for homeless people in accordance with human rights standards and offer incentives for decriminalization, including giving local authorities funding for implementing alternatives and withholding funding for criminalizing the homeless. 

Those recommendations run counter to the current trends in the nation. Laws targeting the homeless—loitering laws that ban sleeping or sitting too long in one public spot, or camping in parks overnight—have become increasingly common in communities throughout the country as homelessness has skyrocketed.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), a D.C.-based advocacy organization which monitors laws that criminalize homeless people and litigates on behalf of poor people regularly conducts reviews of cities criminalizing homelessness and finds more and more laws banning such activities as sitting or lying in public places with each new survey.

"We welcome the Committee's Concluding Observations and call on our government to take swift action to solve homelessness with homes, not jails and prisons,” said Maria Foscarinis, the NLCHP executive director, in a statement. The NLCHP had submitted a report to the U.N. Committee for review.

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an umbrella organization of advocacy groups in the Western U.S. that is hoping states will sign onto a Bill of Rights for homeless people, said that more and more homeless people are being arrested, prosecuted and killed for actions relating to their poverty.

"The U.S. seems to talk a much bigger rhetoric than it practices," he said. "At the U.N. level, we have a horrible growing record of supporting repressive regimes, and as we bring our neo-liberal policies to America, we're doing the same thing here."

On March 16, a homeless man in Albuquerquewas shot and killed by police who were attempting to arrest him for illegal camping. James Boyd, 38 years old with a history of mental illness, was shot dead by Albuquerque police while his back was turned after a three-hour stand-off. Boyd, armed with a small knife, appeared to be surrendering when he was gunned down. The incident was caught on one of the officer's helmet-cams and has been posted on YouTube by at least half a dozen news outlets.

Albuquerque police officials had concluded that the shooting was justified, but the FBI has since announced it is launching an investigation into the incident and said it is already probing 23 officer-involved shootings in Albuquerque since 2010. On Sunday, hundreds of people marched through Albuquerque to protest the number of police shootings in the city, a day-long event that ended when police fired tear gas into the crowd.

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.