Desperate to ease homelessness, California officials look to New York ‘right to shelter’ policy
Much about California’s homelessness crisis has confounded state and local officials. But what to do about the tens of thousands of people living outdoors has perhaps done so more than anything else.
Searching for a solution, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, co-chairs of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Homeless and Supportive Housing Advisory Task Force, are looking to New York. They want California to enact a legal “right to shelter.”
If adopted, it would compel cities and counties to build enough large shelters to accommodate any homeless person who asks to come indoors. But Steinberg and Ridley-Thomas want to go a step further and also require that homeless people be forced to accept shelter if offered. How the state would enforce the second requirement is unclear.
Both men have been vague about whether this right to shelter would be implemented through state legislation, an executive action by Newsom or whether cities would pass their own ordinances. But it would amount to a major philosophical shift in how California handles homelessness.
In Los Angeles County, for example, close to 45,000 people — out of roughly 59,000 — live outside in tents or in vehicles. Most are in the city, and their presence has become a huge political liability for Mayor Eric Garcetti, as Los Angeles has struggled to keep up with a string of problems over sprawling homeless encampments that have enraged residents. In California, 90,000 of the state’s 130,000 homeless people are unsheltered.
But the barriers to success for a right-to-shelter requirement in California also are incredibly high. Large amounts of capital would need to be appropriated from the state budget to execute a plan like this. Plus, residents — particularly in areas where state environmental laws have been used to file lawsuits to block shelters and affordable housing projects — would need to be placated.
For his part, Ridley-Thomas said it was still early and that he and Steinberg hadn’t yet decided what would be the best method of accomplishing a right-to-shelter policy.
“I’m not trying to worry myself into inaction,” he said in an interview. “The status quo is simply unacceptable. I feel rather strongly that we can do better.”
Newsom’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Steinberg said he hoped to use the state’s new task force, of which he is co-chair, as a venue to begin a conversation on how to implement a right-to-shelter requirement. The first meeting is likely to be in August.
“We have a long-term plan to build housing for people who are unsheltered,” he said, “but we cannot continue with the reality that while we fix this problem that we are OK with 90,000 people being on the street.”
Steinberg first floated the idea last week in an op-ed in the L.A. Times, explaining how New York City brings its homeless population indoors. But the mayor made clear in an interview with The Times that he didn’t want to just replicate that system. Rather, it could be starting point as California’s leaders consider how to respond more forcefully to the homelessness crisis.
Garcetti said in a statement that “a state guarantee to a bed, with thoughtful shelter options, deserves our urgent consideration.”
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.
In January, volunteers conducting New York City’s point-in-time count recorded 3,588 unsheltered individuals. But on any given night, there are about 58,000 homeless people who sleep indoors in shelters, hotel rooms or run-down private apartments for which the city pays.
This strategy for addressing homelessness is expensive. In the latest fiscal year, which ended June 30, the city spent $3.2 billion on services for homeless people, including $1.9 billion on shelters, according to the city comptroller’s office. Those figures have doubled since 2014, while the number of people in shelters has increased 11%.
Steinberg, while noting the large amount the New York City spends on keeping people indoors, countered that California is already spending tons of money with little to show for it. He said he believes there’s the political will to use a comparable amount of money to transform how the state’s homeless population lives.
“We are spending untold tens of millions of dollars now ineffectively addressing symptoms of homelessness, through law enforcement budgets, through public heath budgets, through public works budgets just cleaning up a lot of the messes,“ Steinberg said. “There is no reason why we can’t convert some of those resources — a lot of those resources — together with more investment from the state, which is what it’s going to take. “
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.”
Some in Los Angeles are particularly skeptical of spending so much on temporary solutions when more permanent housing is needed.
Tommy Newman, director of public affairs for United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said that if California is going to get into the business of creating new rights and reshaping government budgets, it should create a right to housing — not to temporary shelter — and work from there.
“Anything else is a distraction from the true causes of — and solutions to — the crisis we face,” said Newman, who worked on Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure that L.A. voters passed in 2016 to build more homeless housing.
Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, warned that the legal environment in which New York City’s shelter system exists is completely different than what exists in California. And in a world of limited resources, building more shelters without also building more permanent housing will just change the problem, not solve it, he argued. Given the shortage of affordable housing in California, homeless people would probably end up stuck in shelter with nowhere to go.
“If I don’t have enough housing resources to move people through the shelter inventory, then people will live in the shelters. That’s what happens in New York,” he said in an interview with The Times in June. “That’s not a good use of resources. If we sheltered everybody, there wouldn’t be any money left over to house people.”
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