Homelessness, Rights, and Dignity

A homeless man sitting hunched over, clutching his dog, on the streets of Edinburgh

Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.’

– Anatole France, Le Lys Rouge

Human beings are embodied creatures, and as such every aspect of our lives is tied in some way to physical space. Even the most cerebral of our activities, such as thinking, require a physical location where they can take place. Given this fact, it is obvious that the rights we possess as human beings are inextricably linked to some physical space or spaces. In order to have a right there must be a place to exercise that right, and this is true in every instance: without a physical space in which a given right can be exercised, it would be absurd to argue that a person has that right at all. For example, the European Union guarantees the right to free compulsory education: unless member states set up schools offering this service the right is not really guaranteed. It is equally true, however, that the possession of a right does not mean we have the right to exercise that right wherever we like: to limit the exercise of a right to certain physical spaces is not a restriction on that right.

These are, I hope, two wholly uncontroversial points: rights are tied to physical space, and it is not automatically unacceptable to limit certain rights to certain physical locations. However, in this article I want to consider how these aspects of rights can exclude certain people, specifically those who own no private property. Specifically, I want to discuss how public space relates to human dignity, a concept central to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It seems obvious that basic human activities such as sleeping, bathing, and urinating must be treated as central to human dignity since it is difficult, if not impossible, to retain a sense of dignity without them. Certainly being deprived of the capacity to sleep, bathe, and urinate severely undermines one’s right to dignity.

For the homeless, all of the rights that they possess must be exercisable in public spaces, or else they become contingent on the will of private property owners. For example, let us imagine that the right to free speech was only available on private property, not public space. Since the homeless do not own any property, and those who do can forbid them entrance at will, they could in effect be prevented from ever exercising their right to free speech. Public spaces are the salvation of the homeless when it comes to their rights – if they could not exercise their rights in public spaces, there would be the genuine risk of them not being able to exercise their rights at all. Most private proprietors actively discourage the homeless from entering their property, with many setting up anti-homeless spikes to prevent rough sleepers from using their property as shelter from the elements.

Anti-homeless spikes on a window ledge outside a shop

Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, even in public spaces the homeless are often actively discouraged or outright forbidden from engaging in activities required to lead a dignified life. What this means, in effect, is that they are being deprived of one of the most fundamental rights a person can have. Most of us have no particular issue with a piece of legislation which forbids sleeping, bathing, or urinating in public spaces, and we might even believe that such legislation is a good thing; but we must remember that this is because we are lucky enough to have homes which grant us the unconditional right to sleep and urinate. For the more than 300,000 Britons who lack permanent residence such legislation can have the impact of effectively depriving them of their ability to sleep, or bathe, or urinate.

The number of public toilets in the UK has been steadily and rapidly declining for the last decade, with many areas now having none at all. What’s more, there is no legal requirement for local authorities to provide public toilets: there is nothing to stop this trend from worsening. What all of this amounts to is the removal of a marginalised group’s unconditional right to a basic element of human dignity. The right to urinate or bathe depends on having a space where one is free to urinate or bathe. For most of us this is our home, but for those without a home these rights effectively do not exist – private spaces such as restaurants or bars are often not an option as they will discourage or actively forbid the homeless from entering.

Similarly, sleeping in public has been cracked down on, something much more noticeable as the number of rough sleepers in this country rises. This crackdown is not always as plain as police officers asking homeless people to move: much architecture in public space is now anti-homeless, or “hostile architecture”, designed to prevent people from sleeping there. For example, public benches are frequently now designed in a way that prevents people from being able to lie down comfortably on them.

Depriving people of the right to urinate and sleep are both methods used in torture. The fact that such deprivations are occurring for thousands of citizens on a daily basis reveals a horrific act of negligence on the part of the government. Such negligence arguably qualifies as a failure to meet the article forbidding degrading treatment under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. To deprive people of the capacity to sleep, bathe, or urinate undoubtedly undermines their right to dignity, and so for the homeless these are activities which must be exercisable in certain public spaces.

The current state of homelessness in the United Kingdom constitutes not just an economic or social problem but a failure on the part of the government with regard to citizens’ rights to human dignity. While economic and social solutions need to be at the forefront of addressing the issue of homelessness, so too does a consideration of the right to dignity of homeless people. Such consideration demands the creation of public spaces for sleeping and bathing, and the construction of public toilets. These actions will not end the homelessness crisis, nor can they single-handedly make life more liveable for those without permanent residence. Nonetheless, as long as we live in a society in which homelessness occurs, failing to construct and maintain such public spaces means failing to ensure the basic dignity of certain citizens. This is something no government should tolerate.

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