Housing a right? With legal recourse? Scotland's Homelessness Act of 2003 guarantees the right to housing for the homeless, expands the definition of homelessness, and provides legal recourse to those who are denied housing. It's the subject of "Great Scot!: The Scottish Plan to End Homelessness and Lessons for the Housing Rights Movement in the United States," published in the winter 2009 edition of the Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law & Policy.
The study contrasts Scotland's approach toward ending homelessness with the prevailing approach in the U.S.
Over six decades ago, President Franklin Roosevelt articulated decent housing as a right. His wife Eleanor helped to draft and promote the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing to every individual the right to adequate housing. However the subsequent United States 1949 Housing Act, deemed housing merely a goal; it has remained so to the present.
Faced with rising homelessness over two decades, the Scottish Executive created the Homeless Task Force in 1997 to assess the problem and make recommendations to end it. From the beginning, the Task Force understood housing as a right and was intent on prescribing an end to homelessness in a comprehensive manner.
The definition of homelessness was expanded to include not only those who were actually on the streets or in overnight shelters, but those who were living in overcrowded conditions, were denied access to their homes through fear of abuse, or were at risk of eviction or foreclosure. This marked a departure from exclusion of groups of homeless to the inclusion of virtually all homeless.
In declaring adequate housing a right of all, Scotland allowed legal recourse to those denied it. When a suit is brought, authorities are mandated to provide immediate temporary housing until a case is settled, along with resources for seeking advice.
Is homelessness a thing of the past in Scotland? Interim reports show progress toward the goal, but cite as problems the increased cost of housing in relation to resources, large work loads brought on by the inclusion of homeless groups, and the sometimes recalcitrant mindset on the part of some officials.
As to positive developments in the U.S., the authors point as a model to the New York City AIDS Housing Bill of 2005, which guarantees a right to housing for homeless New Yorkers with AIDS. It lauds also the Housing First model of U.S. housing advocates, who recognize the need to house the homeless before tackling what led to their individual crises. But the U.S. has far to go before our piecemeal efforts are replaced by legal rights.
The report can be viewed in full at www.nlchp.org.