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Giving meaning to the right to safe and secure housing through a Human Rights Framework approach

By Samuel Barnfield, law student and volunteer at the Rights Resource Network (SA), wanting for change

“Our crisis beds are always full, and we spend millions on hotel rooms every year for hundreds of families who have nowhere to go. They are trapped.” Dr. Alice Clark, Executive Director of Shelter SA.

For too many Australians rental-housing is unaffordable. The rental-market has collapsed, the costs of living are high and rising, there is stagnant wage-growth and, since COVID-19, with roughly half-a-million returning to Australia, vacancy rates have dropped so low that roughly 17,000 people are waiting for public housing in South Australia. Nearly 4,000 of whom are needing shelter urgently, according to the ABC.

For many, this rental crisis is a new situation, living in tents, in cars or couch surfing. As explained by Dr. Alice Clark in her InDaily article, this crisis is no natural disaster, but is a disaster nonetheless. The ramifications of which are comparable to floods or fires, and, therefore, require the same level of reaction. According to Dr. Clark, society is unable to connect the dots between homelessness and other interconnected issues, like domestic violence, illnesses, mental health issues and general accidents. These are all issues directly and indirectly impacting those unable to access safe, secure housing:

“My question is, why can’t we apply the same temporary shelter responses for all people — the flood victims, renters and people experiencing homelessness?”, asks Dr. Clark.

Unfortunately, research has shown homeless people in Australia are routinely denied fundamental human rights, and a number of other fundamental civil, political and social rights. According to Chris Sidoti, former Human Rights Commissioner, such safe housing is essential for human survival with dignity. Without it, many other freedoms and other basic rights are compromised. Some claim homelessness is a reflection of society’s disregard for human rights. According to Sue Tilley, senior policy officer at SACOSS, a manifestation of the erosion of a plethora of civil, political, cultural, social and economic rights, such as the rights to decent health, housing, food and safe drinking water, education, access to justice, social and political participation and so on.

Under Article 11 of the ICESCR, all people have the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to safe housing, yet according to the Hutt St Centre, 6,224 people are currently homeless throughout the state.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the right to housing is more than a right to shelter, it is a right to live somewhere that is adequate, determined by:

  • legal security of tenure

  • availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure

  • affordability

  • accessibility

  • habitability

  • location

  • cultural adequacy.

If the right to housing were to be more formally recognised through a human rights framework (HRF) there would be a greater recognition of everyone's right to safe housing in South Australia, from the courts, executive arms of government and in public policy.

For example, according to the First Annual Report on the Operation of Queensland’s Human Rights Act, advocacy group Tenants Queensland used Queensland’s HRF, the Human Rights Act 2019 (QLD), to help a single mother experiencing domestic violence avoid eviction. They assisted the mother in drafting a letter of complaint under the HRF, and subsequently, the housing provider withdrew the application for termination of tenancy.

In another example, Victoria’s Ministry of Housing attempted to evict a single mother from public housing because her boyfriend was growing marijuana on the premises. After the Ministry refused requests to reconsider, the mother applied to the Tribunal but lost her case — however, on appeal to the Supreme Court, she won. The Court ordered the Ministry to reconsider the issue, taking into account Victoria’s HRF — in particular, the mother’s right to property, privacy and to family life. As a result, the Ministry withdrew the notice.

AMIDA, along with Tenants Union Victoria (TUV) used Victoria’s HRF to protect the rights of a person who is intellectually disabled, who was instructed to vacate by the landlord, due to a behavioural complaint. The man’s behaviour was a consequence of said disability, as such, AMIDA and TUV, representing the man, using the HRF, were able to reason with the landlord in question regarding the landlord’s obligations under the HRF. Ultimately, the individual was allowed to remain in the premises.

“While poverty can contribute to the violation of people’s rights — usually out of the exploitation of people’s desperation and due to the conditions to which they are subjected — at the same time, poverty is a consequence of human rights violations” says Sue Tilley, from the South Australian Council for Social Services.

A HRF in South Australia would help to address homelessness, its denial of human rights and the lack of public housing. Such a framework would improve the quality, effectiveness and accessibility of government services and decision-making, allowing for more timely support to vulnerable groups, like the homeless. Moreover, it would help identify complex, systematic social disadvantages associated with homelessness, such as domestic violence. It would clarify and consolidate the ICESCR, and other existing statements and charters of rights that currently exist at law in South Australia. Working with active groups and services — it could also provide Parliament with the opportunity to develop sustainable responses to ongoing policy challenges associated with homelessness, ensuring all peoples have basic social and economic rights, including access to safe housing.

As Thomas Berry once said, “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects”, as such, it is surely time to change the narrative at play, to change our actions and keep up with our international obligations, making sure that all of our fellow subjects have a space to live and breath; a place among us in society.


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