‘A regional problem’: UN report says Oakland, San Francisco violate homeless population’s human rights

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The United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing released a report last month that identified two of Berkeley’s Bay Area neighbors — Oakland and San Francisco — as cities that have committed human rights violations through policies regarding residents of informal settlements and encampments.

Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha attended a community forum and visited Bay Area homeless encampments to meet with members of the homeless community while drafting the report. She concluded that Oakland and San Francisco have violated multiple human rights by attempting to discourage residents from remaining in informal settlements by denying them access to water, sanitation and health services.

In her report, Farha finds that the current conditions constitute “cruel and inhuman treatment” and recommends that such “punitive” policies be immediately prohibited and ceased. Oakland and San Francisco are the only two U.S. cities mentioned in the report, which sparked a protest of about 100 people outside Oakland City Hall on Tuesday, according to the Mercury News.

“Housing, education, health care — these are issues of importance to all people, regardless of income or ethnicity,” said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an advocacy group that met with Farha during her visit. “These are human rights issues, and in America, we have a hard time grasping that.”

While the city of Berkeley is not implicated in the report, Farha visited an encampment in Berkeley, according to Boden. Homeless rights activists drew parallels between policies in Berkeley and its Bay Area neighbors.

Homeless rights advocate Guy “Mike” Lee said in an email that Berkeley’s current policies regarding homelessness are modeled after those of San Francisco. Homeless rights advocate Mike Zint of First They Came for the Homeless — another advocacy group that met with Farha — also emphasized the similarities between the homelessness policies of Berkeley and San Francisco.

“I think it’s a regional problem and all the cities in the Bay Area need to be thinking about these issues. Similar problems and similar lack of effective response is happening in many cities,” Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said. “The points made about these neighboring cities are things we should be thinking about.”

Worthington and homeless rights advocates said that in addressing the issue, expanding access to affordable housing should be the priority.

In addition to constructing housing, advocates set forth a number of other proposals to improve conditions for the homeless community. Lee recommended a moratorium on evictions and the prioritization of services for those in need, while Zint advocated for drug rehabilitation and mental health support.

According to Boden, homelessness is a manifestation of poverty, meaning that cities should address the root of poverty. He said it is important to continue framing the issue of homelessness as a human rights issue — something that Needa Bee, co-founder of advocacy group The Village,  agreed with. The Village also met with Farha during her Bay Area visit.

“What’s happening is criminal. It’s absolutely criminal,” Bee said. “This is a massive human rights violation. Housing is a human right, and homelessness is not a crime.”

Contact Alex Teodorescu at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AlexTeodorescu8.