Youth Homelessness – a human rights priority

By Professor Judy McGregor
27 Nov, 2017

On Wednesday, January 18, I spoke at the screening of On our doorstep: A voice for homeless youth, a film made by Master of Human Rights students at AUT. It was a great privilege to make some comments along with those who have worked as campaigners, advocates and policy reformers for decent housing for all New Zealanders whether they be children and young people, tenants, single parents, and families or the homeless. What follows is an abridged version of my talk, in which I made four points from a human rights perspective.

Homeless youth

The first concerns human dignity and homelessness. How do we ensure that our discussions, interventions, policy responses and practices respects the human dignity of those who are homeless? How do we ensure that we are culturally informed, and that we are compassionate without being paternalistic or patronising? How do we maintain responses that are empowering and imaginative? Human dignity has to be central to our discussion and actions.

The second is a warning. New Zealand is in a state of self-denial about critical human rights issues, including the prevalence of children living in substandard housing conditions. Complacency, regression around human rights progress and self-denial became evident in a four year research project recently published looking at how New Zealand has implemented its international human rights treaty obligations. We concluded that New Zealand’s commitment to economic and social rights such as the right of everyone to an adequate standard of housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions, was more rhetorical than real. This has become an acute issue in Auckland for multiple reasons we all know about. But self-denial about human right is dangerous because it means we are reluctant to acknowledge that racial discrimination, and growing income inequalities exist even in lucky countries like New Zealand. This self-denial is based partly on complacency and partly on a feeling of impotence that the problem is too big for us as individuals to have any control over or input into.

The third point is that appropriate solutions rest largely on an urgently needed political will, both at the national and local government level. It is a myth that communities alone, either individuals, groups or whānau, can resolve housing unaffordability, rising property prices and rising rents, income poverty, and homelessness as a consequence of domestic violence. Ad hoc and fragmentary policy responses which might be well meaning in themselves have not worked systematically to combat homelessness and housing poverty. A cohesive, whole-of-politics approach is required that melds political energy, inter-agency cooperation and meaningful stakeholder participation.

The fourth point is arguably the most important and concerns a child’s right to have a say in matters that affect them. Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obligates the New Zealand government to assure to children who are capable of forming views the right to express those views freely on all matters affecting them. The views of children and young people should be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.

How can we talk about a child’s right to housing or youth homelessness without involving children and young people? No young person would choose to live in a mouldy and unhealthy house or flat, live six or eight in a room with family over-crowding, be forced to move from rental to rental, or live through winter on a sheet of cardboard. New Zealand needs to work much, much harder at giving children and young people input into decisions that affect them.

There are two key things we can do, especially in an election year. First, we must audit all political parties with regards to their policies on housing and homelessness and widely publicise such an audit on social media.

Second, we need to monitor and publicise progress on New Zealand’s commitment to the 2030 United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international plan of action with 17 goals against which targets have been set. Goal 11.1 requires the New Zealand government to release access to adequate, safe and affordable housing for all people by the year 2030. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission has noted in a thematic snapshot report to the UN on children’s rights that the Minister for State Services said:

“if the sustainable development goals are to be more than a piece of paper, we need to have a clear plan, identify actions, build ownership and measure results. And in doing so, we must avoid the trap of mistaking activity for achievement.”

Professor Judy McGregor is Head of the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy and Associate Dean with responsibility for Postgraduate Studies. As a trained lawyer Judy is interested in all aspects of human rights law particularly civil and political rights.