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Without Shelter Right, N.Y.C. Homelessness Could Grow

The city wants to suspend its 42-year-old right to shelter because of the strain the migrant crisis has put on city resources. But many are worried what suspending the policy will do to homelessness in the area.

As New York City pushes in court to suspend its unique 42-year-old right to shelter, citing the strain of the migrant crisis as the leading driver, concerns are growing about the possible effects such a shift would have on the city’s swelling homeless population, with some seeing other cities as cautionary tales.

Experts and advocates are anxiously eyeing outcomes in cities including Los Angeles and Washington — where there is no right to shelter and street homelessness can be far more visible — and warning that New York could soon find itself in similar straits.

It’s unclear what exact effects a suspension of the right to shelter would have on New York, the only large American city that guarantees shelter to anyone who asks for it. Countless factors could play into the outcome, including how the city would change its policies, how long the suspension would last and how migrants would respond.

But advocates paint a bleak picture. Without a right to shelter, tent cities and encampments that have cropped up in many American cities over the last 40 years could grow in numbers in New York, they said.

“The homeless people will not disappear,” said Christine Quinn, the Democratic former City Council speaker who leads the city-supported Win shelter network. “Look at Los Angeles.”

New York and Los Angeles each have homeless populations numbering in the tens of thousands. But America’s two largest cities have starkly different shelter outcomes, said Eric Tars, senior policy director at the National Homelessness Law Center, a nonprofit.

“The majority of New York’s are sheltered. The majority of Los Angeles’ are unsheltered,” Tars said. “If you weaken or remove that right to shelter altogether then what we can expect to see is encampments on the scale of Skid Row in Los Angeles emerging in New York.”

For decades, Los Angeles has had a notorious 50-block Skid Row, where a patchwork of tents, cardboard boxes and other makeshift homes sprawl over urine-coated sidewalks in the shadow of the city’s downtown. The area is a magnet for addicts. The city has at times attempted sweeps of the district.

In Chicago, where homelessness rates increased during the pandemic, tent encampments are common sights in parks and under trains and highways.

In housing-crunched San Francisco, the squalid, tent-filled Tenderloin and SoMa districts are intersections of colliding crises of homelessness and drug addiction, with overdose deaths piling up at alarming rates.

Perhaps the closest modern example of a U.S. city lifting broad shelter protections came in Washington, D.C., which in 1990 gave up on a short-lived experiment aimed at securing shelter for the city’s estimated 5,000 homeless people.

Convinced that a citywide overnight shelter provision was cutting too deeply into municipal coffers, the Washington City Council curtailed the rule. When advocates for the homeless pushed to put the issue to the public, Mayor Marion Barry campaigned hard against the policy in a referendum.

Washington voters rejected the shelter rule, which they had overwhelmingly supported six years earlier. In the decades since, the capital city has struggled to help its homeless population off the streets.

After Washington repealed its overnight shelter rule, life for homeless Washingtonians worsened, said Maria Foscarinis, a Columbia University Law School lecturer who founded the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington in 1989.

“There were more people on the street,” Foscarinis recalled. “The city almost immediately began closing shelters.”

The change did not appear to have material effects on the overall size of Washington’s homeless population, according to estimates and contemporaneous news reporting.

Today, Washington has a smaller per capita homeless population than New York, based on government estimates. But its homeless population is far more visible. The city often removes tent camps, only to see them reappear.

New York City, overwhelmed by the needs of tens of thousands of asylum seekers who had arrived in its shelters over the previous year, went to court in May to ask for modifications to its right-to-shelter rule, which was established by a 1981 consent decree.

The city signed the agreement after a Manhattan Supreme Court justice, in a case called Callahan v. Carey, found a right to shelter in the New York State Constitution. That finding has never been affirmed by the state’s highest court, but the question could arrive there during the current round of litigation.

Mayor Adams’ administration offered significant new details on its suspension request in a court filing Tuesday, declaring that it wants the right to shelter suspended for single adults.

Not all advocates see the right to shelter as a smart way to attack homelessness, fretting that it can send people into permanent cycles of warehousing, and arguing that cities should instead focus on access to permanent housing.

New York City said a suspension of its right to shelter would give it more flexibility to handle a migrant challenge projected to cost the city $12 billion in three years.

The Adams administration has asked for a temporary pause. In a statement, the mayor said the consent decree was “never intended to apply to the extraordinary circumstances our city faces today.” More than 63,000 migrants are in the city’s care, according to the government, and the shelter population doubled in a year.

In December 1979, when Justice Andrew Tyler of the State Supreme Court ruled in Callahan that homeless men have a right to shelter, an estimated 10,000 homeless men lived in New York City, Newsday reported at the time.

Today, the city shelter system alone serves more than 116,000 people a night, according to a city tally.

Susie Sinclair-Smith, a longtime homeless services provider who was leading the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless when the capital clipped its shelter rule in 1990, said she believes a right to shelter is no replacement for other homeless services and the creation of affordable homes.

“I wouldn’t want to emphatically say every place should have a right to shelter if that means that they don’t place a commitment on housing and other resources,” Sinclair-Smith said.

Still, she added that she would be careful about pausing the right. “If a right to shelter helps focus a system to address homelessness,” she said, “I think it should remain.”

At the same time that New York City is working to freeze its right to shelter, officials in San Francisco have sought to secure sweeping shelter protections for the northern California city’s estimated 8,000 homeless people.

Last year, the city approved an ordinance aimed at providing universal shelter. But the passage of the measure, sponsored by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, has not been followed by budgetary action to implement a functional right to shelter.

Mandelman said he believes his city has made a mistake by prioritizing housing creation over a mass expansion of emergency shelter space. Even as New York moves to freeze its right to shelter, Mandelman described the mandate with envy.

“Right to shelter has been a great benefit to the housed and unhoused residents of New York,” Mandelman said. “As we look at what’s gone wrong in California, I think a lot of people are identifying the fact that there is not an immediate exit from the streets for people as a big part of the problem here.”

©2023 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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