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Criminalization of the homeless and the extreme poor in Brazil, France and Poland

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

In a new report to the United Nations, Facts and Norms Institute gathers relevant information on three different countries.

Street vendor. Image: Bhaumik Kaji / Unsplash

In September 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution with the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (Resolution 21/11).

According to this landmark document, States should “repeal and reform any laws that criminalize life-sustaining activities in public places, such as sleeping, begging, eating or performing personal hygiene activities.”

During the subsequent years, new resolutions were adopted with similar concerns. In June 2020, v.g., the Human Rights Council called in Resolution 43/14 on States to “take all measures necessary to eliminate legislation that criminalized homelessness.”

On 30 August 2021, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing and the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights invited written contribution on laws and regulations that may still prohibit or sanction begging, staying, sleeping, easting or undertaking any other life sustaining activities in public spaces.

In response, on 30 November 2021, Facts and Norms Institute (FNI) concluded a new report: “Criminalization of homelessness and extreme poverty: input to the UN regarding Brazil, France and Poland”.

A concerted effort by researchers Henrique Napoleão Alves, Fernanda Alves de Carvalho and Mosabbir Hossain, the report draws upon a variety of sources, from legislation and case law to other public documents, press notes and materials from civil society and international organizations.

Brazil: criminal norms and sanctions, confiscation of personal belongings, obstruction of livelihoods and anti-beggar architecture

According to FNI's research and sources, norms criminalizing the homeless are still formally valid in Brazil.

Additionally, despite norms or doctrines exculpating crimes of necessity or neglectable offenses, desperate individuals are still jailed for nonviolent, minor offenses.

There are also reports of State agents confiscating personal belongings and documents of people living in the street, as well as criminalization and administrative obstruction against street vendors.

Finally, the researchers found many instances of complaints against "hostile" or "anti-beggar" architecture — i.e., urban design aimed at keeping the homeless away.

France: sanctions for actions linked with the homeless and concerning local regulations

In France, the criminalization of vagrancy, in validity since 1810, was voided in 1994. However, new norms were enacted in order to sanction several actions linked with the homeless, such as begging with animal and with child.

Furthermore, municipalities have been using their police power to enact anti-begging regulations and measures. The latter are justified as a means to protecting order, public tranquility and sanitation.

There are concerns, however, with whether these norms and actions are disproportionate and culminate in violations of poor people's basic rights.

Poland: criminalization of actions linked with the homeless and reports of inadequate assistance to the extremely poor

When it comes to Poland, homelessness and staying in public spaces or sleeping in the streets were are not subject to penalty per se. Nevertheless, there are still legal provisions related to offenses that can indirectly affect the homeless, for example, trespassing, bathing in forbidden areas, theft from a garden, fouling and littering, and minor forest damage.

Additionally, there are reports of insufficient and inadequate assistance to homeless people by local authorities, such as limited or absent support to homeless people with addictions,

Finally, there are reports of private actors using force to remove the homeless from their areas. Such acts were interpreted as another form of punishing the homelessness.


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