Sanitation and Housing Conditions in the United States Fail to Meet Global Standards, Affirms United Nations
Recent U.N. review of human rights in the U.S. echoes recommendations by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic
December 14, 2020, New York - On November 9th, countries from around the world scrutinized how U.S. laws and policies measure up against human rights standards. The review focused on systemic racism, the lack of accountability for police violence, and the need for universal healthcare. During the review, the U.N. called on the U.S. to stop criminalizing poverty and to ensure housing and sanitation are available to all. These recommendations reflect ongoing advocacy by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic in partnership with the National Law Center and Homelessness and Poverty, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, based in Alabama, and Partners for Dignity & Rights, which supports grassroots campaigns for justice.
“Human rights include the right to an adequate standard of living, which means the U.S. must meet the basic needs of its people,” said Rob Robinson of Partners for Dignity Rights. “As long as people are unhoused or lack access to water and sanitation, the government is violating human rights,” Mr. Robinson continued.
Fundamental rights are out of reach for many Americans. Over half a million U.S. homes do not have the sanitation and wastewater systems needed for good health and basic dignity. When toilets and septic systems do not work, individuals are exposed to feces in their homes and front yards –exposure linked to hookworm and other diseases. In 2020, the U.S. government estimated that 568,000 people were homeless, a 3% increase from 2019. Often individuals without adequate housing do not have clean water needed to shower regularly or use the bathroom.
High rates of homelessness and poor sanitation undermine public health and aggravate health crises, including Covid-19. The CDC has found that Covid-19 can be transmitted through exposure to fecal matter, and has also reported a high prevalence of Covid-19 within homeless shelters.
“Indigenous, African American, and migrant communities often encounter obstacles to good sanitation. These communities have also long experienced barriers to political participation and often lack representation in decision-making,” explained Clinic student Obinna Maduka (LLM ‘21), a Nigerian LLM interested in working with impacted individuals to strengthen human rights protections. “To make matters worse, individuals who cannot afford basic necessities like housing, safe water, and sanitation can be criminalized and face fines. This amounts to punishment for the inability to afford basic needs,” he continued.
To date, there has been little political will to recognize basic rights to sanitation and housing in the United States. In contrast, the Trump Administration has systematically rolled back the limited rules and regulations that were in place to improve housing, water, and sanitation. When the U.N. examined the U.S.’ human rights record, the federal government failed to share any concrete steps which it would take to meet these basic needs.
To effectively tackle the housing and sanitation issues that the Trump Administration has ignored, and which the ongoing pandemic laid bare, the incoming Biden Administration should develop a detailed plan to ensure basic needs, consistent with the U.N.’s recommendations. To be effective, this must be done in partnership with the communities that are most impacted. The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic has detailed the steps that the U.S. must take to fulfill the right to sanitation. Federal action should include developing water and wastewater affordability standards, and improving access to sanitation funding for individuals and rural communities. In the short term, the incoming Administration should also encourage states and localities to end laws that punish individuals because they cannot afford adequate sanitation or housing.
JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director, Human Rights in the U.S. Project at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute
(718) 812-0868, [email protected]
The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic works to advance human rights through partnerships with civil society organizations and communities. It brings together innovative education, social justice work, and scholarly research, and students are trained to be strategic human rights advocates.
In 2020-2021, Lucia Falcon Palomar and Obinna Maduka are members of The Bringing Human Rights Home Project Team within the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic. The team works with partners across the United States to identify barriers to racial and gender justice and strengthen protections for economic and social rights, including housing, waste-water infrastructure, and sanitation, which remain out of reach for many in the U.S. JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director of the Human Rights Institute’s Human Rights in the U.S. Project supervises the team.