Today’s Read: California Officials Look to New York ‘Right to Shelter’ Policy

New York City’s right to shelter is a critical, life-saving emergency resource. Thanks to this right, which was established through litigation brought by the Coalition’s founders, 61,129 men, women, and children were able to sleep in shelters last night instead of facing the dangerous summer heat on the streets of a sweltering city. As the Coalition continues to urge the City and State to create more permanent housing for a record number of homeless New Yorkers and to implement policies to prevent and end homelessness, we also acknowledge that it is essential for all of our homeless neighbors to have ready access to a safe place to sleep indoors, sheltered from the elements and harm that visits those living outside.

California, which has been struggling to address mass homelessness in recent years, is now considering a version of New York City’s right to shelter. Currently, an estimated 90,000 of California’s 130,000 homeless people are unsheltered, while the vast majority of homeless New Yorkers sleep in shelters. The proposal would ensure that there is a shelter bed for any Californian who needs one. However, one key difference is that some elected officials in California have proposed requiring homeless people to accept shelter if it is offered – an ill-advised strategy that would likely push vulnerable people away from services and supports instead of engaging them.

Benjamin Oreskes wrote about the proposals in the Los Angeles Times, and highlighted the need for permanent housing so that people can move out of shelters and into homes of their own:

Advocates say the right-to-shelter requirement saves lives by keeping the most vulnerable people off city streets, where cold winters and hot summers can be deadly. Even in L.A., where sunshine and mild temperatures are typical, more people died of causes related hypothermia last year than in New York City.

“The right to shelter itself is the most valuable aspect of the system,” said Joshua Goldfein, a lawyer who works on the Homeless Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society of New York. “It means that there is always a bed for someone, and that enables the city to engage with people in a way that they know there will be a place for them if they’re willing to come in off the street.”

New York City didn’t adopt a legal right-to-shelter policy by choice. The requirement came about in 1981, two years after it was sued for turning away a man from a homeless shelter because of a lack of space. The city and state of New York were forced to enter a consent decree, requiring that officials offer a bed to any homeless person who requests one.

Still others question the wisdom of taking the extra step to require homeless people to come indoors. In New York City, efforts to create that expectation have not come to fruition.

Instead, the city has created a new type of shelter called a “safe haven.” Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director at the New York Coalition for the Homeless, described them as shelters that “take people where they’re at.” She said there are more than 1,000 beds in these safe havens citywide in addition to more conventional shelter set-ups.

“New York City has done a very good job of building a different shelter model,” she said. “To require the homeless to come into shelters is just going to push them deeper underground and into hiding. It’s the wrong thing to do.”

Another fear is that building a huge shelter system will lead to homeless people spending months or even years moving from emergency unit to emergency unit — and never into permanent housing.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also has said he wants to build 15,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next 15 years, but progress has been slow.

“We have people who have lived in shelters for years and years and years. It’s not what anyone envisions as a proper fate,” Nortz said. “People don’t thrive living crammed together.”

Whether in the deadly cold of winter or the equally dangerous conditions of a heatwave, the right to shelter saves lives – but the ultimate solution to homelessness lies in building a sufficient supply of affordable and supportive housing to ensure that those who are or become homeless have a safe, permanent home they can afford. To fully address homelessness, every level of government must invest in the production of new affordable and supportive homes specifically built to house homeless families and individuals. That is why our House Our Future NY Campaign urges Mayor de Blasio to finally address homelessness by following our recommendation to build at least 24,000 new units of deeply subsidized, affordable housing for homeless households through his Housing New York 2.0 plan, and set aside at least 6,000 more apartments for homeless New Yorkers through the preservation of already-occupied housing, for a total of 30,000 units. Only then will homeless New Yorkers be provided with a pathway out of homelessness.