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Keynote Address CEO Sleepout

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Keynote Address CEO Sleepout

Graeme Innes
Human Rights and Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Luna Park, Sydney
18 June 2009


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

Sleepout buddies and others:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with all of you, and sleep with some of you. As you will have noticed, Vinnies was good enough to let my eleven-year-old daughter Rachel join me as my guide tonight, and she'll be the only one getting any of my cuddles. The rest of you have to make your own arrangements.

Many Australians, and perhaps many of you here, regard homelessness in Australia as a welfare issue worthy of our attention and our charity. I don't. It’s fair and square a human rights issue - and until we accept it as such, and treat it as such, those experiencing homelessness will remain disempowered, and will remain passive recipients of charity, rather than active bearers of rights.

As you are already here, you obviously have some understanding about the seriousness of the issue of access to adequate housing.  As we increasingly creep towards a "period of negative growth" the matter of adequate housing is becoming a pressing issue on many peoples mind.

A lack of housing is not just a concern for the people traditionally thought of as being vulnerable to homelessness.  Increasingly, families and young people are at risk, and make up a disproportionate amount of people counted who do not have access to adequate housing.

Our experiences tonight will illustrate the reality of how a lack of adequate housing creates countless difficulties when trying to maintain and carry out a life which includes a regular job, family, privacy, good health, personal safety, an education, and the freedom to pursue advancement.

The interconnectedness of these basic human rights shows that when one right is not being adequately met, it becomes difficult to meet any or all of them.

The official definition of homelessness from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says that a person is homeless unless he or she has adequate access to a place to stay, which can provide safety, peace and dignity.  Some of you with families may believe that your right to peace and dignity is being breached every time you try and persuade your kids to clean their room…but of course we're talking about something a little more complex, sobering and increasingly acute, especially throughout this "pause in recovery".

When someone doesn't have a safe, secure and solid place to live, they are unlikely to be able to enjoy any or all of the following human rights:

  • The human right to an adequate standard of living, including the
    right to housing, food, clothing and improving living conditions
  • The human right to the highest attainable standard of health
  • The human right to social security
  • The human right to an education
  • The human right to liberty and security of person
  • The human right to vote
  • The human right to privacy
  • The right to enjoy culture and take part in cultural life
  • The human right to freedom of movement
  • The human right to freedom of association
  • The human right to freedom of expression
  • The human right to be treated with humanity and dignity

And last but not least

  • The human right to non-discrimination.

I could give you a practical example of each of these. I won't, but think about going to school when on the streets, how you get a Medicare card without an address, and how you apply for jobs when you are sleeping - or perhaps not sleeping - as we are tonight. Born and growing up in Sydney, this is the first time I've walked through that smiling mouth with such a feeling of trepidation.

We’ve all considered how we're going to go to that first meeting tomorrow, prepared and ready to make significant decisions.  Whether responsibilities can be maintained without a good nights sleep, comfort and warmth, is something that we're going to experience.  That's just one meeting in one day.  How difficult would it be to enjoy the general amenities which make our lives easier, a car without an address to have on your license, a place to shower privately, security to feel safe from violence, store and consume enough food, access to appropriate clothing, and maintain adequate living conditions.

A rights based approach to human rights shifts the issue away from a welfare approach.  When a right is identified and asserted, it moves away from the idea that people experiencing homelessness are charity cases, in need of state intervention.  A rights based approach challenges this idea, and allows a shift of power to the individual asserting a right that we all should have access to.

This is not just a debate about language. It’s changing the reality.

Frank Brennan and his committee have just completed a national consultation on protection of human rights. Over 25000 submissions were received, and the rights I have listed in relation to homelessness were prominent. The Australian Human Rights Commission called for a human rights Act for Australia, to bring us into line with all other western democracies, to view problems and vulnerability through a human rights lens, and to address these issues before they occur. Such a law would bring human rights home- turning our international commitments into an Australian law, setting out all of our rights.

Human rights will not - by themselves - put a roof over the heads of homeless Australians. But human rights provides us with a language and a framework that can help shift the debate from one of welfare and pity, to one of rights and empowerment. That's an extremely important step. We all know the difference it makes to be viewed as an equal with an entitlement, rather than as a recipient seeking benevolence.

Our contribution tonight will help to raise funds so that Vinnies can continue its vital work. But changing the way homelessness is viewed is just as important- because it will empower those we are all wanting to help. Just as we parents don't raise our kids to continue to be parented, we need to assist homeless Australians to address the issues they face themselves.

Thank you for the chance to speak with you tonight.

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