UN report singles out homeless conditions in Oakland, San Francisco as 'cruel and inhumane'

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A United Nations expert on housing explicitly singled out San Francisco and Oakland as the only two U.S. cities that are part of a “global scandal,” describing homeless encampments there as “cruel and inhumane.”

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Canadian attorney Lelani Farha, presented her 23-page report on Oct. 18 in New York at the U.N. General Assembly after touring the world and visiting the Bay Area in January.

She also visited Berkeley and Los Angeles, but did not mention those cities in her report. On Tuesday, Bay Area housing activists held a rally at Oakland City Hall to discuss the findings. 

Farha issued 31 recommendations, namely earmarking enough money for the homeless, making sure building materials are affordable, prohibiting discrimination and stopping the eviction of homeless people and the criminalization of their behavior. 

“I visited California and saw firsthand the human rights' violations being experienced by people who are homeless,” Farha wrote. “They are the victims of failed policies—not the perpetrators of crime."

Farha said she learned a great deal touring encampments and drop-in facilities serving homeless people. 

"The community repeatedly expressed that they simply wanted to be treated as human beings. It is dehumanizing, demoralizing, and unjust to criminalize hundreds of thousands of people due to their housing status,'' she wrote in her report. 

READ: Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing

Farha noted that there was major rat infestation in Mumbai, India due to a lack of waste removal. In Belgrade, Ireland she saw children playing on garbage piles as if they were trampolines. In Lisbon, Africa, people had no electricity. And in California, she wrote, people had no access to toilets or showers and lived in fear of being “cleared off the streets.” 

“In North American countries, I’ve visited encampments under highway overpasses deliberately deprived of portable toilets that are subject to having their tents and belongings swept away at any time,” she said in a statement.

Oakland has between 1,900 to nearly 3,000 homeless people in a city of about 425,000 and San Francisco has at least 7,500 in a city of about one million.

In an interview with the East Bay Express during her January visit, Farha questioned why a wealthy state like California hasn't spent sufficient funds to address the homelessness crisis. In fact, statistics show that the crisis has only worsened during the most recent seven-year economic boom,. 

But San Francisco and Oakland have indeed spent money on the problem, and both mayors, London Breed and Libby Schaaf, respectively, have made helping the homeless one of their top city priorities.

San Francisco spent $275 million on homelessness and supportive housing in the fiscal year that ended at the end of June—that's a $241 million jump from the year before, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The city budgeted $305 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year and some of the money is earmarked for building more shelters. 

And in Oakland, Schaaf launched a $9-million initiative called Keep Oakland Housed to prevent at-risk residents from losing their homes earlier this month. The city also created three communities of converted Tuff Shed garden sheds to house 120 homeless people this year – a move that Farha had previously said should only be a temporary situation. Each Tuff Shed community costs about $1 million. 

Oakland Assistant City Administrator Joe DeVries told the East Bay Times that the city also provides garbage pickup at more than 16 sites, and conducting periodic deep-cleanings, during which residents are asked to move their belongings temporarily.

“We agree that this is a humanitarian crisis, which is why we’ve been implementing so many interventions to try to make things better at encampments,” he told the Times.

Still, many housing activists are unhappy. Candice Elder, the founder and CEO of The East Oakland Collective, one of the nonprofits that hosted Farha, said that the “U.N. report backs up everything we have been saying for a while.”

Elder wants the homeless encampments to be upgraded with toilets and hand-washing stations. She wants sanitation services at all 80 homeless encampments. She wants the city to let the homeless live on empty lots of public land. And she doesn’t think people living in garden sheds is the answer. “We could be doing more,” she said. As for where the money will come from? Elder said: The private sector, the county and the state. 

In addition to Elder’s group, Farha was hosted by the Coalition on Homelessness, Western Regional Advocacy Project,  The Village/Feed The People, and First They Came For The Homeless. Farha specifically did not meet with government leaders and her visit was purposely not announced, the East Bay Express reported.

City leaders in San Francisco, Oakland and agencies including Caltrans and BART, who own property where homeless people live, have said that they have no choice but to periodically make camps move so that areas can be cleaned and sanitized. Officials worry about hepatitis outbreaks or other dangers, in addition to mountains of garbage that build up near the camps.

In Oakland on Wednesday, a small group of homeless people were ordered to pack up their belongings and tents and vacate the pathway at Lake Merritt near the estuary channel. A man told KTVU that the group was told to relocate to a shelter by the Kaiser Convention Center but that the center was already full. 

Oakland spokeswoman Karen Boyd said that crews went to Lake Merritt to clean up overflowing garbage from the homeless residents living in the 20 Tuff Sheds the city put recently, but the situation got "confrontational" and the work wasn't able to be completed. But, she added, that the city needs to remove the other, non-sanctioned camps. She said that the city is providing other "shelter options" in the Tuff Sheds, which are now called the "Lake Merritt Community Cabins,", where there are 14 spaces available, or beds at St. Vincent de Paul.

Farha is the executive director of the NGO, Canada without Poverty, based in Ottawa. For the last 20 years, she has worked both internationally and domestically on the implementation of the right to adequate housing for the most marginalized groups and on the situation of people living in poverty. She is part of the U.N. Human Rights fact-finding team.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. on Dec. 10, 1948 and rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

Farha gave a deadline of 2030 so that the world will stop “accepting the unacceptable.”