The UN Is Accusing the U.S. of Something You Might Expect in a Third World Dictatorship

"Cruel, inhuman and degrading." These are words you often associate with third-world countries, war zones or even off-the-book sites like Guantanamo Bay. You probably wouldn't expect to hear those words applied to park benches, subway stations and empty stairwells in cities across America.

But that's exactly what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued in a recently released and damning periodic report on the state of human rights in the U.S. Though the report covered everything from the death penalty and gun violence to drones and rendition, the most eye-catching section was the UN's condemnation of the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S., which "raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment"

"I'm just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter," said Nigel Rodley, a human rights lawyer and the chairman of the UN committee. "The idea of criminalizing people who don't have shelter is something that I think many of my colleagues might find as difficult as I do to even begin to comprehend."


Image Credit: Affordable Housing Institute

The background: The criminalization of homelessness is indeed a growing problem in the U.S., with more and more cities opting to arrest people for loitering or occupying public spaces — and applying violent tactics in certain cases. Last month, the Associated Press reported that a mentally ill, homeless man was jailed in Rikers Island and eventually "baked to death" in his cell. Another sick, homeless man was killed in March after a standoff with the Albuquerque police.

And escaping homelessness is not simply a matter of choice. Even those who attempt to find employment are often denied for not having a permanent address, which makes it nearly impossible to escape the cycle of homelessness. Despite the proven economic benefits of eliminating homelessness, the American system punishes those who have trouble escaping their circumstances — without giving them a leg up. More and more, it seems like the "American Dream" really is nothing more than a dream. 

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Eileen Shim

Eileen is a writer living in New York. She studied comparative literature and international studies at Yale University, and enjoys writing about the intersection of culture and politics.

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