REDESCA's Visit to Los Angeles, USA: It is urgent to address the human rights situation of unhoused people

July 12, 2023

Washington D.C.- The Office of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (REDESCA) of the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a site visit to the City of Los Angeles from March 1 to 3, 2023, to assess the situation of the rights of unhoused people in the city and in the United States. During the visit, the Special Rapporteur and her team participated in meetings with city and State authorities and officials, academics, volunteers, and civil society organizations. REDESCA also held follow up meetings with federal authorities and specialized local agencies during April of 2023.

During the working visit the Special Rapporteur received information from government officials at every level on their assessment on this matter and the measures taken, as well as gathered testimonies from unhoused people, people who have been recently transferred to housing communities, activists from civil society, academia, and volunteers who selflessly are helping unhoused communities in the city. In this context, the Office would like to give special thanks to the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, H.E. Karen Bass, and her staff; the administration of Culver City; the Principal Deputy Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), H.E. Demetria McCain; Senior Advisor to the HUD Secretary for Housing and Services, H.E. Richard Cho; the Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, H.E. Jeff Olivet; among other authorities and state entities in charge of addressing this situation. Likewise, REDESCA would like to thank to the Mission of the United States to the Organization of American States for their continued support during the visit and for connecting the mandate with the relevant federal, state, and local entities. Additionally, REDESCA takes this opportunity to also extend its gratitude to the Promise Institute of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), the UCLA School of Law Veterans Legal Clinic, the UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles Community Action Network, and civil society organizations for their support during this visit.

General Situation of the Unhousing crisis in the city of Los Angeles

According to information provided by local officials, the city of Los Angeles (L.A.) has a current unhoused population of 46.260 people and for Los Angeles County it is 75.518 people. From 2022 to 2023, that number increased by 10% for the city, while from 2018 to 2020, it increased by 25.9%. REDESCA also notes that in this context of the total number of people who are unhoused, there is a disproportionated representation of Latin-American (42.6%) and afro-descendants (31.7%) -the latter only representing 7.6% of the total population of the county-.

In this context, REDESCA is deeply concerned that according to civil society organizations and activists in Los Angeles, five unhoused people are dying every day in the county and that prior to the pandemic the rate was three. Additionally, up to 1.500 people passed away from March 2020 to July 2021, where the most common cause of death was overdose and 78% of those who died were afro descendants. Furthermore, it was stated that more unhoused people die of hypothermia in Los Angeles than in San Francisco and New York City combined. They also reported that most of these people are dying in shelters, public housing, hotels and within programs supposed to keep them safe.

At a national level, approximately 582.462 people live on the streets or do not have proper shelter. While the total number of unhoused people in the United States increased by just 0.3% from 2020, the number of those unsheltered went up by 3.4%.

In this worrisome scenario, the Office of the Special Rapporteur notes that the human rights situation of unhoused people in Los Angeles is deeply linked to a series of structural and long-standing causes and externalities, such as the economic system and market dynamics that do not have the realization of human rights at their core, the lack of a strong social safety net, skyrocketing housing prices along with stagnated incomes, slowing housing creation, mass incarceration, and systemic racism, that together contribute to the current situation that has pushed thousands of people into houselessness. In this sense, the Special Rapporteur highlights that without urgent and comprehensive measures, this situation will only continue to worsen.

Consequently, the current situation of inequality, exacerbation of poverty, criminalization, and the absence of safety nets have devolved into an unbearable crisis that at its current rate could reach almost anyone in the general population. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur observes that the required minimum income to attend the most minimal needs of a single adult with no children in Los Angeles amounts to 37,836 dollars (USD), after taxes. This would require a living wage of $21,22/hr, however the minimum wage in the city will only increase to $16,78/hr in July 2023. Currently, the median rent in Los Angeles is $3000 per month, which amounts to $36.000 per year.

On this matter, it is noteworthy that, as the IACHR and REDESCA have stated, unhoused people, understood as those who lack stable, safe, and adequate housing – coupled with the generalized deprivation of other rights – are part of a group in a vulnerable condition that requires special attention. Besides the fact that their situation can also be evidenced in different ways, including not only living in open public spaces, such as public roads, but also in vehicles, in temporary shelter (whether they are emergency or permanent ones), in encampments, as well as in inadequate and unsafe housing, such as informal settlements.

For this reason, REDESCA considers that this situation can only be addressed from a human rights approach that does not criminalize poverty, especially considering that the latter constitutes a problem that results in obstacles to the enjoyment and exercise of human rights in conditions of real equality by individuals, groups and collectivities living in such a situation. Since the Commission has established in its report on Poverty and Human Rights, that the situation of poverty brings with it a heightened exposure to human rights violations and increased vulnerability, it is highly important that unhoused individuals are able to participate in this process of trying to overcome their situation.

In this framework, REDESCA presents a series of conclusions and observations on the main findings of its visit to Los Angeles. It also provides recommendations to the State and other actors, aimed at bringing the United States legal system, practices and policies in line with international and Inter-American norms and standards. In this regard, as previously recognized by the IACHR, REDESCA recalls that the international human rights protection obligations that the United States has voluntarily adopted emanate from a series of international and regional instruments. These include the Charter of the Organization of American States and the American Declaration, as well as the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this vein, it is worthy to highlight that the Inter-American Court has established that, for the member states of the OAS, the American Declaration is the text that defines the human rights referred to in the Charter and it is a source of international obligations.

In the occasion of presenting these findings and recommendations, the Special Rapporteur stated: "The United States is facing an existential challenge for the preservation of what is known as the "American dream". It is of extreme importance that the State at all levels of government take immediate action to ease the impacts of inequality and poverty on the life of those who are more unfortunate. With these findings, REDESCA wants to provide a tool to strengthen the social and economic system of the country, for the people who are lacking their most basic needs, such as food, water, healthcare, and a place they can call home. Which in turn affects their right to life and dignity. In short, the housing crisis in the United States is a human rights crisis too."

Finally, the Special Rapporteur also said: "It is unconceivable, that in Los Angeles - one of the richest cities in the world-, and in California -the 5th largest economy in the world and one of the richest states in the country- such a large number of people live under this condition due to a vast income inequality that is affecting people who are in the most vulnerable situations, there is no time to lose".

REDESCA is an autonomous office of the IACHR that was specifically created to support the IACHR in fulfilling its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

No. RD153/23

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