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What’s Wrong with More Rights for the Homeless?

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What’s Wrong with More Rights for the Homeless?

Orange County Register August 14, 2019
Urban PolicyWelfare
Health PolicyMental Illness

As officials in California continue to cast about for solution to the state’s ongoing homelessness crisis, some have called for instituting a “right to shelter.” The most notable example would be co-chairs of Gov. Newsom’s homelessness task force, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Last week, Gov. Newsom said that while he did not endorse a right to shelter, he considered it to be an important idea to debate.

Central to any debate over a right to shelter for the homeless is the experience of New York City, where I work. It is certainly true that New York’s right to shelter, rooted in a consent decree signed by mayor Ed Koch in 1981, has long stood at the center of the city’s response to homelessness. Mayor Steinberg specifically cited New York’s experience as a model for California to emulate.

From a New York perspective, it is curious to hear such praise. New Yorkers are known for their boastfulness, but, outside the ranks of those tasked with developing and defending the city’s homeless services system, few now take much pride in that system. Homelessness ranks as a leading topic of concern in surveys of public attitudes about the greatest challenges the city is facing these days, just as it does in California. In my experience, most ordinary New Yorkers say that they believe the problem on the streets and subways has gotten worse over the last ten years.

New York’s experience with the right to shelter demonstrates limitations of such an approach, for at least three reasons. First, while it’s true that New York has a low rate of unsheltered homelessness, that is substantially driven by our cold winters. Many researchers have identified a connection between cold January climates and low rates of unsheltered homelessness. If the raw rate of unsheltered homeless is your standard for success in this policy area, California could stand to learn just as much about homelessness from the state of Maine (3.9% unsheltered) as New York City (4.7%).

Second, New York has found the goal of providing quality shelter to be elusive. Mayor Steinberg inadvertently alluded to the distinction between granting a right to shelter and providing quality shelter when, in his recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, he noted New York’s current efforts to expand and reform its shelter system. Those efforts would not be necessary now, almost four decades on, had the right to shelter on its own been more effective in addressing homelessness. Despite our right to shelter, we still grapple with a “service resistant” street population, who, in explaining why they refuse to exercise that right, voice the same litany of complaints against shelters that one hears in the hundreds of jurisdictions without a right to shelter: unsafe, unclean, too many rules and restrictions, etc. And that’s despite the staggering amount we spend on shelter and programs to keep people out of shelter: over $3 billion, or more than the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s “Continuum of Care” program spends for the nation as a whole.

Third, adopting a right to shelter will take homelessness out of the hands of the public and elected officials and transfer authority to courts and lawyers. “Housing First” types whose definition of success in homelessness is how many supportive housing units were built in a given year are right to be concerned. A right to shelter will indeed empower courts and unelected advocates to force cities to spend money on shelter at the expense of other benefits and programs.

Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote critically about “a political culture that rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good.” The expansion of rights for the homeless sounds noble, but will prove of limited use in improving their lives and the lives of the non-homeless who are also affected by the crisis. If California is now looking to New York for solutions on homelessness, the situation must be worse than anyone realizes.

This piece originally appeared at the Orange County Register

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Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.

Photo by DianeBentleyRaymond/iStock

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