United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Worldwide attention was focused on the plight of homeless persons when the United Nations announced that 1987 would be the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.

Summary of Event

As a follow-up to its first Conference on Human Settlements, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1976, the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed 1987 the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (IYSH) on December 20, 1982. In its resolution, the General Assembly expressed serious concern that, despite the efforts of governments at national and local levels and of international organizations, the living conditions of many people continued to deteriorate in both relative and absolute terms. In response, the resolution set forth two principal objectives for activities before and during the year: to improve the shelter and neighborhoods of some of the poor and disadvantaged by 1987, and to demonstrate by the year 2000 ways and means of continuing to improve shelter for these groups. Homelessness;International Year of Shelter for the Homeless International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, U.N. (1982) United Nations;homelessness [kw]United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis (Dec. 20, 1982) [kw]Homeless Crisis, United Nations Responds to the (Dec. 20, 1982) [kw]Crisis, United Nations Responds to the Homeless (Dec. 20, 1982) Homelessness;International Year of Shelter for the Homeless International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, U.N. (1982) United Nations;homelessness [g]North America;Dec. 20, 1982: United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis[05020] [g]United States;Dec. 20, 1982: United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis[05020] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 20, 1982: United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis[05020] [c]United Nations;Dec. 20, 1982: United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis[05020] [c]Human rights;Dec. 20, 1982: United Nations Responds to the Homeless Crisis[05020] Ramachandran, Arcot Dellums, Ronald V. Rouse, James Wilson Premadasa, Ranasinghe

The General Assembly urged governments to prepare national shelter strategies. It designated the Commission on Human Settlements Commission on Human Settlements, U.N. (established in 1977) to act as the United Nations’ intergovernmental body responsible for organizing the year, and it assigned the U.N. Center for Human Settlements (also known as Habitat) the responsibility of coordinating the programs and activities of other organizations and concerned agencies.

The concept of the IYSH was first introduced to the General Assembly in 1980 by Ranasinghe Premadasa, the prime minister of Sri Lanka, who described the problems faced by homeless persons worldwide. The resolution declaring the IYSH followed after reports were prepared by the Commission on Human Settlements and the Economic and Social Council in 1981.

The importance of shelter acknowledged by the IYSH proclamation was not a new notion for the United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) unanimously adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, established in Article 25 that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [and] housing.” The Universal Declaration gained almost universal acceptance. Its clauses were incorporated in decisions by U.N. organs and agencies, in international treaties, in national constitutions, and in national legislative and court decisions.

The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) stands as the preeminent treaty that incorporates the right to housing. In 1976, this international covenant became a legally binding multilateral treaty when ratified by the required thirty-five countries; by 2006, more than 150 countries had become parties to this treaty. The declaration of the IYSH thus constituted a major step taken by the international community to implement the prior recognition of the importance of the right to shelter. Significantly, however, the United States steadfastly refused to ratify the covenant. President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights signed this international covenant in 1977, but the Senate had not given its advice and consent to ratification.

From 1983 to 1987, many programs were instituted to further the goals set by the IYSH. On October 8, 1987, Arcot Ramachandran, the executive director of Habitat, chronicled these activities in his briefing to nongovernmental organizations. He indicated that some of the most important successes during the first phase of the IYSH involved a sensitization in regard to shelter issues. The IYSH established 139 national focal points and more than six hundred demonstration projects around the world to improve shelter conditions. In support, the World Bank agreed to increase its loans to developing countries up to one billion dollars a year and to give higher priority to housing infrastructure and services. Habitat also assisted eighty-five developing countries in implementing shelter programs and organized ten subregional IYSH meetings to facilitate exchange of information on projects.

Ramachandran also described some of the actions taken by governments at the national level. These included programs focusing on services, self-help, and low-income housing projects. Many nations gave high priority to increasing access to affordable building materials and housing finance. Urban development projects met with uneven success, however, because of lack of resources and technical and personnel problems. Disturbing as well was the lack of commitment of national governments to improve management of their cities. Ramachandran concluded that without the involvement of the communities or the concerned people themselves, the shelter programs would fail.

To generate the needed nongovernmental involvement, Habitat organized four regional meetings. In April, 1987, a global forum was held in Nairobi, Kenya. More than four hundred nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) participated. The forum adopted a plan of action that included measures to develop the relationships between NGOs and community-based organizations, ways to strengthen the relationships with governments, proposals for increasing media attention to the problems of the homeless, development of regional NGOs to facilitate links between locally based NGOs and aid agencies so as to improve fund-raising mechanisms, and plans for creating national and regional NGO networks for greater exchange of information and experiences.

Despite the U.S. Senate’s refusal to approve the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which contains the right to housing, NGOs and community-based organizations in the United States worked independently of the federal government to implement the IYSH objectives. Their efforts culminated, most significantly, in 1988 with the introduction of the National Comprehensive Housing Act (H.R. 4727) in the House of Representatives by Congressman Ronald V. Dellums.

The act would “provide an affordable, secure and decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” While functioning primarily as a visionary model against which to measure less ambitious legislation, the act provided for the first time a comprehensive legislative mechanism for acting on a right to housing for all citizens. It backed up its grand statement of purpose with an appropriation of $55 billion annually (with adjustments for inflation) to create, within ten years, a permanent supply of nonprofit housing in sufficient quantity to provide all persons with decent, affordable housing. Adoption and implementation of the act by Congress would fulfill the objectives of the IYSH for the inhabitants of the United States by the end of the twentieth century.

Congressman Dellums based the act on A Progressive Housing Program for America, written in 1987 by the Institute for Policy Studies’ Working Group on Housing. The IPS working group recognized, as did Habitat’s Ramachandran, that statements of policy and declarations of rights amount to little more than wishful thinking unless backed by the financial resources and political will of national governments. The group consequently fashioned a program premised on the necessity of a significant reordering of national funding priorities.

If it were adopted, the Dellums legislation would substantially alter the housing delivery system in the United States. The IPS program acknowledged the inability of the private sector to produce housing affordable to low-income households without substantial subsidies. The program called on the federal government to facilitate production by providing direct capital grants to local nonprofit and public-agency developers. This would eliminate expensive reliance on private credit and ensure than the housing would be protected permanently from the speculative effects of the private market.

The National Housing Task Force, a group primarily composed of developers, bankers, and government officials, came to much the same conclusion as the IPS working group. Chaired by developer James Wilson Rouse of the Enterprise Foundation, the task force’s 1987 report, “A Decent Place to Live,” proposed that the federal government renew its commitment to housing based on “the clear understanding that housing for poor people cannot be produced by the private sector acting alone.” The task force recommended that the federal government establish a new system for the delivery of affordable housing. Under the recommendation, the government would provide matching grants to state and local governments and nonprofit groups to help develop, renovate, and conserve low-income housing.


Many regarded the IYSH as a success because it focused world attention on a problem that most people would prefer to ignore. During its tenth session, in April, 1987, the U.N. Commission on Human Settlements adopted twenty-two resolutions and an agenda to guide policies and programs for shelter strategies. At that time, fifteen countries pledged more than $2 million in support of the activities of Habitat and the IYSH. This was in addition to $1.5 million pledged earlier by thirty-one other countries.

Despite this, the fact remained that one-fifth of the world’s population did not have adequate shelter. About 100 million people had no shelter at all. Every day more than fifty thousand people, most of them children, died of malnutrition and disease. Many of these deaths are attributed to lack of adequate housing.

Perhaps the greatest value of the IYSH was that as a result of IYSH activities, some lessons were learned regarding what was needed to make shelter a reality for all people. These lessons were summarized by Ramachandran in his briefing to NGOs. First, an integrated approach to shelter issues in the overall scheme of economic and social development is necessary. Second, pressure on the world’s largest cities has to be reduced by placing a greater emphasis on the role of smaller cities. Third, strategies must be adopted that will facilitate helping people to help themselves. Fourth, security of tenure with respect to land must be provided. Fifth, urban management and community participation in all projects has to be strengthened, as do industrial development and employment-generating strategies. Sixth, systems furthering resource conservation, environmental protection, health, and social development have to be increased.

The most important factor in securing adequate shelter for the homeless was conspicuously absent from Habitat’s list. Governments must declare housing a national priority, and adequate financial, physical, institutional, and human resources must be allocated for the realization of this right.

In the United States, community-based groups and NGOs made the economic resource commitment the linchpin of their national efforts. As part of a national effort preceding the 1988 presidential election, the National Jobs with Peace Campaign featured the IPS program and the Dellums legislation as the centerpiece of its housing platform. Although Dellums’s H.R. 4727 failed to pass in the House of Representatives, he reintroduced it in 1989 as H.R. 1122. It became the standard for subsequent legislation addressing national housing policy. The United Nations held a second Habitat conference, also known as the City Summit, City Summit (1996) in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1996, to deal with the increasingly widespread need for urban housing. Homelessness;International Year of Shelter for the Homeless International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, U.N. (1982) United Nations;homelessness

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Appelbaum, Richard P. A Progressive Housing Program for America. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, Working Group on Housing, 1987. Technical document drafted over a three-year period by the IPS working group, fifteen individuals from throughout the United States including social scientists, nonprofit housing developers, lawyers, and housing activists. Meant for students of national housing law and policy as well as professionals and government officials working on housing-related matters. Includes a lengthy explanation, supported by extensive data, of the national housing crisis. Also presents a detailed description and explanation of the program itself, which served as the basis for Dellums’s National Comprehensive Housing Act. Comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cluster, Dick. The Right to Housing: A Blueprint for Housing the Nation. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1989. Popularized booklet version of A Progressive Housing Program for America, cited above. Contains a clear and cogent description and analysis of the housing crisis in the United States as well as the progressive housing program, illustrated by numerous real-world examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Commission on Human Settlements Stresses Need for Global Strategy for Shelter to Year 2000.” United Nations Chronicle 18 (July, 1989): 47-58. Describes the activities of the Commission on Human Settlement’s meeting in April, 1987. It is followed by a series of articles dealing with the issue of homelessness. These include case studies of housing development projects and a review of actions taken by the U.N. Economic and Social Council.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilderbloom, John I., and Richard P. Appelbaum. Rethinking Rental Housing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988. Chapter 9 is based on “A Progressive Housing Program for America.” The authors present the proposal in the context of their in-depth social and political critique of national housing policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“IYSH Proclaimed.” Habitat News 5 (April/May, 1983): 11-12. This article reviews the activities in the United Nations that resulted in the resolution declaring the IYSH. It also describes the endeavors undertaken under the auspices of the IYSH during 1983 and 1984.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ortiz, Enrique. The Right to Housing: A Global Challenge. Mexico City: Cuadernos de Dinámica Habitacional, 1990. Describes the problem of lack of housing worldwide and outlines the legal basis for the right to housing. Attempts to define the obligations of governments, the international community, individuals, and communities with respect to this right. Outlines the international campaign for housing rights of Habitat International Coalition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Housing Finance Systems for Countries in Transition: Principles and Examples. New York: Author, 2005. Offers in-depth analysis of housing finance models in the former socialist countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Human Rights: A Compilation of International Human Rights Instruments Concerning the Administration of Justice. New York: Author, 2005. Contains the texts of numerous conventions, declarations, recommendations, resolutions, and other instruments concerning human rights adopted by the United Nations and other international organizations. Includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition

American Psychiatric Association Addresses the Homeless Mentally Ill

U.S. Congress Appropriates Funds for the Homeless

Categories: History