Eric Tars is the Human Rights & Children’s Rights Program Director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Eric frequently travels the globe to promote the human right to housing and also advocates on behalf of homeless children who are denied the right to an education. Eric coordinated the involvement of hundreds of organizations in the hearings of the U.S. before the United Nations Committee Against Torture and Human Rights in 2006. An expert on integrating human rights strategies into domestic advocacy, Eric currently serves as the chair of the U.S. Human Rights Network’s training committee and on the steering committee of the Human Rights at Home Campaign. A frequent Clearinghouse Review contributor, Eric wrote Opening the Door to the Human Right to Housing: The Universal Periodic Review and Strategic Federal Advocacy for a Rights-Based Approach to Housing for the Clearinghouse Review’s 2011 special issue on applying a human rights lens to poverty law practice. In 2009 Eric wrote Who Knows What Lurks in the Hearts of Human Rights Violators? The Shadow (Reporter) Knows—Human Rights Shadow Reporting: A Strategic Tool for Domestic Justice .
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
Right now, I’m most happy about our human rights advocacy on criminalization of homelessness with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Five years ago, even for the dedicated, it was sometimes hard to believe that we could make human rights real in the United States; now this federal agency has a whole web page dedicated to the human rights of homeless people in the United States and issued a report calling criminalization a potential human rights treaty violation! Complementing this, following a year of creative advocacy, we just got the United Nations Human Rights Committee to recognize criminalization as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. This recognition will flow into further discussions with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and other agencies that are creating real change within the government. While it’s not ending homelessness today, we are changing the baseline of how the government talks about this issue, and moving very strategically toward a better tomorrow.
Recognizing the human right to housing doesn’t mean we have to build a house for every American and put them in it, free of charge, tomorrow. But it does require much more than we are doing now, and more than a mere provision of emergency shelter.
What's a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?
Even after getting federal monitor findings and a temporary restraining order in a case against the New York State Board of Education for their practice of allowing schools to disenroll homeless students while they still have an appeal of their status pending with the board, they continue to allow it. We’ve tried so many forms of formal and informal advocacy, but they seem to enjoy punishing homeless students, and we still haven’t figured out how to make them stop.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
I wish we could have movement historians following us around and writing about our successes for us. Often, we’re too busy doing good work to tell the story from the advocate’s perspective, and so much good experience gets lost (except when Clearinghouse Review editors get us to commit to writing a story in our “free time”).
And then, I wish we had time to read all those success stories, to keep ourselves educated and inspired.
Throughout your career, you have passionately advocated for the United States to recognize a "human right to housing." How would recognizing such a right change homeless Americans' lives?
Recognizing the human right to housing doesn’t mean we have to build a house for every American and put them in it, free of charge, tomorrow. But it does require much more than we are doing now, and more than a mere provision of emergency shelter. For example, a few years ago, Congress magically found a trillion dollars to bail out banks and take their “toxic mortgages” off them. In a human rights world, as part of that conversation, we would have asked “how can we use this money to create policies that ensure the right to housing for those facing foreclosure?” We would have required the banks to modify mortgages to keep people in their houses in exchange for the bailout, and required vacant properties bought back from the government to be offered as affordable housing. Instead, the banks got their bailout and are back to record profits, speculators are profiting off those properties, but millions have lost their homes.
What's one of your guilty pleasures?
I don’t drink, smoke, or even drink coffee. But ice cream, or even better, gelato, is the way to my heart.
You can reach Eric Tars at firstname.lastname@example.org.