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UN Observer Calls For ‘Moratorium’ On Criminalizing Homelessness In San Diego

Police officers remove a tent left by the homeless during efforts to sanitize...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Police officers remove a tent left by the homeless during efforts to sanitize neighborhoods to control the spread of hepatitis A, in San Diego., Sept. 25, 2017.

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For the past three days, Canadian attorney Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, has been touring the streets of San Diego, talking to people dealing with the city's unprecedented housing crisis.

Aired: August 15, 2019 | Transcript

For the past three days, Canadian attorney Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, has been touring the streets of San Diego, talking to people dealing with the city's unprecedented housing crisis.

She's charged by the UN with investigating whether cities are in compliance with international human rights law when it comes to housing. Last year, after touring the Bay Area, she called its treatment of the homeless “cruel and inhuman.”

Farha sat down with KPBS reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler on Wednesday afternoon in South Park, shortly after meeting with city and county officials about the housing crisis in San Diego.

Q: What have you seen during your visit to San Diego?

A: I’ve seen a lot of homelessness. But to be honest I’ve seen a lot of heartbreaking situations. People living in really extreme, life-threatening circumstances. And we have to remember, of course, the US is the richest country in the world, and California is a really wealthy state. And yet people I saw are living on the pavement, on sidewalks, in tents. I saw people living in their cars. I met a single mom with three children, one of whom was three-years-old living in her little white car. I met older people today, in particular, who were living in RV’s, made worse by the fact that their attempts to just survive are being criminalized. So they’re being constantly interacted with by the police and harassed by the police. They’re ticketed, fined, they face misdemeanors, they’ve gone to jail; just for trying to live. So it’s pretty stark and really unacceptable from a human rights obligations point of view.

Q: The City Council recently passed a bill making it illegal for people to live in their cars in certain areas of the city. Does this help exacerbate the housing crisis?

A: There are a lot of people in San Diego who have no choice but to live in cars or RV’s because they can’t afford the cost of housing here. It’s a really expensive place to live. And if you’re on low income, or moderate income even, it’s really tough to eke out an existence here. And criminalizing is obviously contrary to human rights, and it also further stigmatizes those who are living in homelessness and allows more affluent segments of the population to look down on people living in homelessness to say, “Oh look, they’re involved with the police. They must be dangerous or drug abusers and all sorts of things."

Q: How has the rental market in California, and across the country, fundamentally changed in a post-2008 world where you have actors like the Blackstone Group, private equity groups, moving into the rental market and just trying to earn money for their investors instead of trying to provide adequate housing?

A: So we have seen the housing landscape shift and change entirely since 2008, and really since 2011, when those big financial actors, the private equity firms, like Blackstone and others, big asset-management firms, pension funds, insurance companies, started to invest unprecedented amounts of wealth and money in residential real estate. One, to grow wealth, to have a good return on investment for their investor clients. But also they used residential real estate as a way to leverage more capital, as a way to keep accumulating wealth and buying more properties, etc. It’s having a devastating effect on cities around the world. I haven’t investigated that as much as I would like to in San Diego, but surely it’s a problem in northern California, where I visited a year-and-a-half ago, and in other places in the US.

Q: Today you met with officials from the city and county of San Diego. How did that go?

A: No one with whom I spoke with at the city or county was proud of the homelessness crisis in the city. I’m hopeful that political will and interest in the issue will translate to human rights outcomes. One of the things that I think the city needs to grapple with is, “What is the appropriate response to the situation?” And I would really encourage them to better acquaint themselves with what their international human rights obligations are, and to start using that to determine policy, programs, ordinances, or lack of ordinances. I would love to see a moratorium on the criminalization of homelessness in this city.

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