New York can solve homelessness: But we won’t get there by simply transforming the right to shelter into a right to housing

Originally published in The New York Daily News

As cities throughout the United States are grappling with how to address the growing problem of mass homelessness, many municipalities have been turning a curious eye to New York, where, despite our many challenges, the crisis looks dramatically different than it does in places like Los Angeles, with its vast encampments. The main difference here is that, for the past 40 years, New York City has had a right to shelter that legally obligates the city to provide decent and appropriate shelter placements to anyone who is homeless.

Because of this right, which was secured for homeless adult men in 1981 in the landmark case Callahan vs. Carey, and then was expanded through subsequent litigation to include homeless adult women and then homeless families, our city does not have tens of thousands of people sleeping in makeshift structures in public places — despite the fact that each year well more than 100,000 New Yorkers experience homelessness. Instead, we have tens of thousands of people bedding down each night in our municipal shelter system.

While either scenario — relegating people to the streets or to shelters — is obviously unacceptable, offering them a warm bed and a roof over their heads is without question the better and more humane approach. A sad testament to that fact is that Robert Callahan, the plaintiff in Callahan vs. Carey, died on the streets only months before the right to shelter was established with the signing of the Callahan consent decree that bears his name.

So is the right to shelter the answer to homelessness? The answer is a resounding no. The right to shelter is simply the very least we can do if we believe it is morally wrong to allow people to live, and die, on our streets. It is necessary, but it is nowhere near sufficient.

And so we find ourselves today with a sprawling municipal shelter system that few would describe as an adequate, let alone ideal, response to the crisis. Many critics cite the high cost of maintaining the shelter system. Some point to the deeply disturbing reports of corruption and mismanagement by some shelter providers contracted by the city, as recently highlighted in the press. Others point to the large number of people sleeping on the streets each night as proof of the system’s failure.

These critics are right. We spend too much on shelters. There are providers who game the system or are simply not up to the task of providing decent shelter (as guaranteed by Callahan), and the city’s efforts to monitor and clamp down on such activity have been wanting. And, as we at the Coalition noted in our own ”View From the Street” report released in April, many homeless individuals turn to the streets because they find the shelter system robs them of dignity, agency and safety.

But the answer is not, as some have suggested, to eliminate the right to shelter — it is to eliminate the need for shelter. You don’t fight a pandemic by closing hospitals; you cure the disease. The best way of doing so is by providing enough affordable housing for all who need it. The problem with framing this goal as “reimagining the right to shelter as a right to housing” — which has been a frequently heard battle cry of late — is that it creates a false dichotomy, suggesting that the right to shelter precludes the pursuit of a right to housing.

This kind of thinking, pitting one critical need against another, is dangerous and self-defeating.

Both are needed. The right to shelter is absolutely fundamental to our city’s approach to mass homelessness. By some estimates, more than a million New Yorkers have used the shelter system at some point since 1981 to find help and stability.

That’s not to say that the shelter system does not need to be vastly improved. The current model of congregate shelter, in which dozens of single adults sleep in the same room in beds three feet apart from one another and share communal bathrooms and eating facilities, not only deters many from using shelters, but is a dangerously inappropriate setting when an airborne infectious disease like tuberculosis or COVID-19 threatens public health. But there are better models, such as the smaller, low-threshold Safe Haven shelters that provide more dignity and flexibility, and which must be expanded.

Again, the most effective solution to the crisis is to create a sufficient amount of affordable permanent housing so that shelter stays, when needed, are brief and lead to access to a real home. But to get there, we need a comprehensive and coordinated response to homelessness that integrates shelter policy and housing policy. The continued failure to do so is what has left us in the position of spending billions of dollars a year to maintain an emergency shelter system that, because of the lack of affordable housing options, too often functions as the de facto housing of last resort for a significant portion of the city’s population.

Until every New Yorker has a way to access affordable housing, the right to shelter serves as a foundation of decency in our city — a commitment to our community that we will not relegate our neighbors to living, or dying, on our streets. The right to shelter is fundamental to who we are as a city. The right to housing should be as well.

Giffen is Executive Director at Coalition for the Homeless.