As governments around the world imposed lockdown measures to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, homeless people are facing fines or arrests for being on the streets and unable to comply with the new draconian rules.
Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, said she had been “appalled” to hear that in countries like France and Nigeria people had been ticketed, arrested, and “treated as criminals”.
“This is state behaviour against homeless people that we certainly saw pre pandemic … But in the time of COVID-19 it can be a death sentence,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
Worldwide an estimated 1.8 billion people are homeless or live in inadequate housing and are thus highly at risk of being infected and infecting others during the pandemic.
Health experts say the homeless are more likely to contract illnesses such as the coronavirus, in part because of weakened immune systems due to additional stress, and lack of nutrition and sleep..
They also often suffer underlying medical conditions that make an illness more serious when it does break out.
Governments around the world have been racing to provide for the homeless but housing campaigners said many of the measures taken – from opening up shelters to making more funds available to homeless charities – fall short and are accompanied by counter-productive, strict policing and enforcement.
In the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte warned that anyone violating lockdown measures could be shot, tens of thousands of people have been arrested for breaking curfew or disobeying authorities, according to human rights groups.
Many among them were homeless people. At the same time, homeless shelters in Manila have been shut for violating quarantine conditions, forcing millions of people to seek shelter in empty churches and schools.
Homeless charities in Italy have urged police in some cities to stop fining rough sleepers for breaching self-isolation measures.
A spokesman for the interior ministry said that after a somewhat “jumbled” start to the lockdown, it instructed all local authorities to act in a “humane and rational way” when dealing with homeless people.
In the Indian capital of Delhi, homeless people have been prevented from walking outside to get to the “hunger relief centres” that have been set up to feed the needy during lockdown, according to the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN).
The non-profit estimates there are up to 200,000 homeless people in the city.
Rights groups in the United States said some police have been going against the advice of health authorities by continuing to enforce laws that prohibit trespassing and sleeping in or setting up tents in public places.
With libraries, cafes and other public facilities closed, it has become more difficult for homeless people to access toilets.
That makes it harder for them to follow basic sanitary guidelines such as handwashing, said Eric Tars, legal director of the Washington-based National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Authorities in India and South Africa have also set up impromptu shelters and camps, sometimes using stadiums and soccer fields.
But rights groups have warned that the conditions are often unsanitary and that police have been using force to bring homeless people to the temporary shelters or prevent them from leaving.
“While several incidents of police assistance and goodwill have been witnessed during India’s lockdown, it is alarming that incidents of police brutality have also occurred in parts of the country,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the HLRN in Delhi. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)