“Homelessness, a human catastrophe” – UN Expert hails media push to spark debate in San Francisco


The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, today commended a large media initiative in San Francisco to put a spotlight on what has been described a “human catastrophe”: homelessness. Its aim is to spark discussions about homelessness and encourage civic engagement.

Led by the San Francisco Chronicle, a five-day media series will start on 29 June and will feature stories on the multiple causes of homelessness and potential solutions. With almost 70 local, national and international news outlets involved, it is the first time a concentrated media effort to support homelessness has taken place in the region.

“The portrayal of homeless people in the media has a significant impact on public perception and empathy,” Ms. Farha said. “The San Francisco Chronicle and their partners have an opportunity to shift the conversation about homelessness from one of individual failure to government responsibility and systemic causes.”

In her latest report to the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur noted that homelessness is a fact of life in all countries of the world, regardless of the level of development of their economic or governance systems, and it has been spreading with impunity.

“Homelessness is one of the most egregious violations of the right to housing, requiring human rights responses,” she said. “It is unthinkable that so many States around the world – including affluent States – have taken decisions that have led to increasing homelessness.”

Ms. Farha urged all governments to recognize homelessness as a human rights crisis and commit to eradicating this global phenomenon by 2030, in line with the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“This is in keeping with international human rights law, and the media have an important role to play in this – without public pressure, this global crisis will continue,” the expert stressed.

“I believe the San Francisco media push will encourage other media to report on homelessness in new ways, with a view to assessing accountability and offering solutions,” she concluded.

The report on homelessness

In her report, the UN Special Rapporteur examines how homelessness is caused by States’ failures to respond both to individual circumstances and to a range of structural causes, abandoning responsibility for social protection and allowing unregulated real estate speculation and investment to exclude a growing number of people from any form of housing.

“Homelessness is a result of State acquiescence to real estate speculation and unregulated markets — a result of treating housing as a commodity rather than as a human right,” Ms. Farha says.

“The common denominator in virtually all structural causes of homelessness is government decision making inconsistent with human rights,” she notes. “This has left millions of people subject to a violation of rights to life, health, housing, equality and non-discrimination, among others.”

The report focuses on the social stigma, discrimination, violence and criminalization experienced by those who are homeless. From individuals sleeping on the streets, to families in makeshift dwellings, the expert’s report highlights the urgency of fighting the invisibility of the issue.

“States must address the root causes of homelessness by implementing national strategies anchored in human rights. We have been silent and have failed to tackle one of the most pervasive violations of human rights, but our lack of action can make us complicit,” she underscores.