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Respecting human rights in emergency shelter

December 11, 2019 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose


This is part one of a three-part series of guest columns by Andrew Huff, a case manager for Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program.
In a previous article, I described how Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program (CSP) for chronically homeless men practices democratic shelter management in alignment with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration is perhaps the best-known document articulating human rights standards, but it is not the only one. As part of the CSP’s shift from a “shelter management” paradigm to a “shelter governance” paradigm, I have been closely examining several of these documents so that we can hold ourselves accountable to the same standards as any other government in a democratic society.

Aside from the question of whether we are legally obligated to uphold international human rights agreements, I simply wonder about the moral obligation. In other words: What kind of people do we want to be? Do we want to be the kind of people who think human rights are optional? Or the kind of people who believe in the promise of human rights and fulfill that promise?

People experiencing homelessness are some of the most marginalized people in society — and the way a society treats its most marginalized people says a lot about the nature of that society. Presumably those of us who work in homeless services — or human services more broadly — care about human rights, or at least human dignity. If we do, then we should be interested to know whether our work does or does not uphold international human rights agreements.

With that in mind, in my next series of articles I will present key takeaways from three documents I’ve been reading — the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Emergency Handbook; the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. I’ll describe why each of these documents matters for homeless services and also share what changes I’m calling for in shelters across Philadelphia because of them.

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What are the U.N. standards and how do they apply to emergency shelter?

Photo by Anthony from Pexels)

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a mandate to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees, stateless people, and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The UNHCR first published its emergency handbook in 1982 to provide guidelines for shelter in humanitarian emergencies involving these categories of people.

The handbook is relevant to our work in homeless services because emergency shelter providers meet the UNHCR’s definitions of an “emergency camp” and a “collective center”. The UNHCR defines an emergency camp as “a form of settlement in which refugees or IDPs reside and receive centralized protection, humanitarian assistance, and other services from host governments and humanitarian actors.”

Meanwhile, it defines a collective center as a pre-existing building or structure used as shelter (i.e. A gym, hotel, factory, house of worship, etc.). These may be either planned (meaning the government has officially designated the building as a shelter) or self-settled (meaning displaced people have occupied the building without government approval).

Here’s a breakdown of how emergency shelter providers in Philadelphia fulfill these definitions: First, according to Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, homelessness in the United States is indisputably a humanitarian emergency.

Second, given that a person experiencing homelessness enters shelter seeking refuge from the elements and may no longer have legal access to his or her former dwelling, people experiencing homelessness may reasonably be considered refugees or internally displaced persons.

Third, by providing people experiencing homelessness with access to food, water, showers, laundry, clothing, and safe indoor shelter in one location, emergency shelters provide centralized humanitarian assistance.

Fourth, individuals who work in such shelters can thus be said to function as local “humanitarian actors.”

Fifth, when emergency shelters receive funding from or abide by policies issued from the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, they are working with a “host government” that has sanctioned use of a particular space as a shelter.

Now that we’ve established that the UNHCR emergency handbook reasonably applies to emergency shelter providers in Philadelphia, let’s look at three standards it articulates.

Emergency shelters that do not meet these standards still offer “shelter” in the most basic sense of the word, but they are not operating in alignment with international human rights standards. After all, covering a human being on the street with a piece of cardboard is technically a form of “shelter”— but it is hardly the fulfillment of the promise of human rights.

Similarly, you could say that renting from a slumlord meets your need for housing, but it hardly fulfills your human right to adequate housing and it certainly does not respect your basic worth as a person.

Even in emergency situations, there are standards we are accountable to. The United Nations is clear that “emergency” does not mean “anything goes.” Those of us working in emergency situations must always remember that we are working with real people — people who have human rights.

The UNHCR handbook articulates a standard of self-determination and empowerment in various ways. For example, in describing collective centers, the handbook states that administrators must “ensure the participation of residents in decision making” about matters that affect their lives.

Meanwhile, the practice of “community based protection” is described as “a continuous process that engages communities as analysts, evaluators and implementers in their own protection,” one that “should be integrated into humanitarian response programs across sectors and in all humanitarian contexts.” The UNHCR also discusses “accountability to affected populations” as “an active commitment by humanitarian actors and organizations to use power responsibly by taking account of, giving account to, and being held to account by the people they seek to assist.”

Lastly, one of the UNHCR’s three overarching objectives when operating an emergency settlement is to “support self-reliance, allowing persons of concern to live constructive and dignified lives.”

The UNHCR handbook also articulates an explicit standard of freedom of movement. It says, unequivocally, that: “International human rights law and refugee law recognize the rights of every individual, including refugees, to move freely. UNHCR encourages every State to respect refugees’ freedom of movement and encourages States that have reservations to lift them.”

Relatedly, the UNHCR notes that international law prohibits arbitrary detention, and that “detention is only acceptable if it is necessary in each individual case, reasonable in all circumstances and proportionate to a legitimate purpose, and where less coercive or intrusive measures (alternatives to detention and other non-custodial measures) are considered ineffective in the individual case.”

The UNHCR also notes that even if restrictions on freedom of movement do not amount to full detention, they are still problematic and place people at risk of harm. With these statements, the UNHCR is referencing Articles 26, 28, and 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention; Articles 3, 9, and 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Articles 9 and 12 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; and other international agreements.

Lastly, the handbook also provides several important structural guidelines.

For example, it specifies that the minimum required covered living space in an emergency settlement is 3.5 square meters per person. There are also minimum standards for the number of communal bathrooms in the settlement (at least 1 per 20 people); the number of showers (at least 1 per 50 people); the number of trash containers (at least 1 per 50 people); and even storage (at least 15 to 20 square meters per 100 people).

Recommendations for Philadelphia’s shelter system

In light of the UNHCR’s standards for empowerment, freedom of movement, and specific structural features in emergency shelters, let’s turn now to my recommendations for the Philadelphia shelter system.

First, in order to fulfill the UNHCR standard of empowerment, emergency shelter providers must actually give shelter guests power.

Philadelphia City Hall.

City Hall. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

In the Church Shelter Program, this means giving shelter guests their own community budget; giving them control over how cleaning supplies and sleeping mats are managed; giving them control over how donations are distributed; giving them control over chores, showering time limits, and laundry schedules; and giving them decision-making power in the shelter’s disciplinary process.

These efforts are not “fun little projects.” They are a necessary practice if we hope to manage an emergency shelter that meets UNHCR standards. To actively prevent or passively exclude emergency shelter guests from being involved in the decisions that affect their lives — which includes every decision made by emergency shelter management — is to violate their rights and their dignity.

With that in mind, I encourage every shelter in Philadelphia that claims to care about human rights and dignity to begin democratizing its management procedures.

Second, in order to fulfill the UNHCR standard of freedom of movement, emergency shelter providers must remove all curfews and restrictions on movement in-and-out of shelters — except those decided upon by the guests themselves.

Within a democratic society, shelter staff have no right to arbitrarily deprive adult shelter guests of their freedom of movement or impose an arbitrary curfew. In the Church Shelter Program, our shelter guests made the decision themselves to establish a midnight curfew. They also made the decision to permit coming-and-going from the shelter up until midnight in an effort to respect freedom of movement and their need for undisturbed sleep. I encourage other shelters in Philadelphia to follow this example and consult with their guests about appropriate curfew and movement restrictions in their facilitates.

Third, in order to fulfill the UNHCR structural standards, emergency shelter providers must assess their day-to-day space allotment.

Research from Japan has confirmed that emergency shelter crowding — which occurs when the average space allotted to each shelter guest fails to meet UNHCR recommendations — is objectively associated with increased sleep disturbance. Not only does crowding disrupt sleep due to excessive noise, it also reduces privacy and increases interpersonal tension in shelter, which in turn make it more difficult to sleep. As emergency shelter providers, we are failing in our mission if our shelters are so crowded that people are unable to sleep or too afraid to sleep.

While it is admirable to seek to accommodate as many people as possible, as I said before: “emergency” does not mean “anything goes.” If we cannot provide shelter in a way that upholds human rights, then we have a serious problem.

As a result, I encourage shelters in Philadelphia to compare UNHCR recommendations with the average space allotted to each shelter guest, and to consult with shelter guests about their subjective feelings of crowding.

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