New York City has a right to shelter, but will it establish a right to sleep outside?
New York Mayor Eric Adams has hailed his city’s right to shelter as a hallmark of compassion for its most destitute. Now he must decide if he will extend that compassion by bestowing homeless people with the right to sleep outside.
The City Council unanimously approved a “Homeless Bill of Rights” last month that would make New York the first big U.S. city to establish an explicit right to sleep in at least some public places.
If Adams, a Democrat, allows the measure to become law, it could be a notable departure for the city, which has for years sent police and sanitation crews to clear homeless encampments as they arise.
It also would run against the prevailing political headwinds in other places that have struggled with large numbers of people living in tents and other makeshift shelters.
The Los Angeles City Council passed a broad anti-camping measure two years ago. Then last year, the city outlawed tents within 500 feet (150 meters) of schools and day cares and banned sitting, lying, sleeping or storing personal property that would disrupt the flow of traffic on sidewalks, streets and bike lanes.
The changes were billed as a compassionate way to get homeless people off the streets and restore access to public spaces for other people. Sonja Verdugo, an organizer with the Los Angeles advocacy group Ground Game LA, called the measure “inhumane.”
“Basically, you can’t rest anywhere outdoors if you’re unhoused,” she said.
Earlier this year, a “Right to Rest” proposal in Oregon died quietly after its sponsor could not muster support. It would have granted the right to use public spaces “without discrimination and time limitations that are based on housing status.”
Attempts to establish a similar Homeless Bill of Rights in California, including a right to sleep outdoors without fear of being confronted by police, also have faltered.
Some hope Los Angeles’ newly elected Mayor Karen Bass will make good on a campaign promise to move people out of tents and cardboard shanties and into permanent housing.
Bass vowed to eliminate encampments lining entire blocks and have made the city’s notorious Skid Row the embodiment of the country’s homeless crisis. Bass also promised to house 15,000 people by the end of her first year in office. The number comprises more than a third of the estimated 42,000 Los Angelenos without permanent shelter.
The increasing visibility of homeless camps has fueled public frustration and prompted politicians, including some moderate Democrats, to push to reduce their prevalence — to the chagrin of some advocates for homeless people.
“More and more, it’s simply illegal to be homeless all across the country — in Republican and Democratic cities,” said Mark Horvath, CEO of Los Angeles-based nonprofit Invisible People. “But it’s not like we can arrest our way out of this crisis.”
Aside from establishing the right to sleep outdoors, the Homeless Bill of Rights passed in New York would also codify the city’s longstanding right to shelter, the only one of its kind among the country’s biggest cities.
Among the nine rights in the measure are safeguards against being forced into facilities that don’t correspond to a person’s gender identity. It also gives people the right to apply for rental assistance and requires parents staying in shelters be given diapers for their babies.
“This is a sensible and compassionate policy response to unprecedented homelessness,” said Taysha Milagros Clark, a policy and data analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.
“The bill of rights really encompasses an understanding that homeless people do have rights. They haven’t violated any laws or anything of the sort just by virtue of their homeless status,” she said. “It is a stark departure from what this administration has done.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams, said the mayor was still evaluating the measure.
“Since Day One of this administration, Mayor Adams has been focused on helping New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and connecting them with a clean, safe place to rest their heads at night,” Levy said.
The mayor’s subway safety program has resulted in more than 4,600 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness being connected to the help and shelter they need “to stabilize their lives,” Levy said.
It is uncertain how the proposed right to sleep outdoors might work in practice.
New York City has rules limiting the ability to set up a campsite. Most city parks close at 1 a.m. Privately owned spaces are off limits. Sidewalks and roads are required to be free of obstructions.
People are forbidden from lying down on benches or seats on the city’s subway trains, though enforcement is lax.
New York City is required by law to guarantee space in its huge shelter system to anyone who needs it, but the system has been bursting partly due to an influx of migrants, many of whom crossed into the U.S. along the southern border.
Nearly 81,000 people were housed in the shelter system in the past week. City officials scrambled to find more space, including renting out entire hotels for families without permanent housing.
Some people choose to live on the streets because they find the city’s shelters dangerous or too crowded, don’t like their rules or curfews, or have trouble being around other people.
Jumaane Williams, New York City’s elected public advocate and a sponsor of the homeless rights measure now before Adams, said he would like the city to focus less on preventing encampments and more on addressing what he says are the roots of the crisis: rising housing costs, joblessness, racism, addiction and mental illness.
“I think we’re in dire situations for things that have been decades in the making,” Williams said.
The concept of a bill of rights for homeless people dates back more than a decade. In 2012, Rhode Island was the first state to adopt one, soon followed by Connecticut and Illinois.
“So far none of them have explicitly protected the right of a person to be able to sleep outside,” said Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.
Five years ago, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the city of Boise, Idaho, could not stop people from sleeping outside if there was nowhere else for them to sleep. Doing so, the court suggested, would criminalize homeless people. The right to sleep outside only exists, the court ruled, if there is no shelter space available.
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