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