New York Mayor Eric Adams has touted his city’s right to shelter as a show of compassion for the poorest. Now he must decide if he wants to expand that compassion by giving homeless people the right to sleep outside.
The City Council last month unanimously passed a “Homeless Bill of Rights” that would make New York the first major US city to enact 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 move for the city, which has for years dispatched police and cleaners to clear nascent homeless encampments.
It would also go against the prevailing political headwinds elsewhere, where large numbers of people live in tents and other makeshift shelters.
The Los Angeles City Council passed a sweeping anti-camping measure two years ago. Then last year the city banned the setting up of tents within 150 meters of schools and daycares and banned sitting, lying down, sleeping or storing personal property that would disrupt the flow of traffic on sidewalks, streets and bike lanes.
The changes have been touted as a compassionate way to get the homeless off the streets and restore access to public spaces for others. Sonja Verdugo, organizer of the Los Angeles interest group Ground Game LA, called the measure “inhumane”.
“Basically, you can’t rest anywhere outdoors unless you’re housed,” she said.
Earlier this year, a “right to rest” proposal in Oregon quietly foundered after its sponsor failed to muster support. It would have granted the right to use public spaces “without discrimination and time restrictions based on residential status”.
Attempts to introduce a similar bill of rights for homeless people in California, including a right to sleep outside without fear of confrontation with police, have also failed.
Some are hoping that newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass will make good on her campaign promise to move people out of tents and cardboard shacks into permanent housing.
Bass vowed to eliminate block-length encampments and make the city’s infamous Skid Row the epitome of the nation’s homelessness crisis. Bass also pledged to house 15,000 people by the end of her first year in office. That number includes more than a third of the estimated 42,000 Los Angelesos without permanent housing.
The increasing visibility of homeless camps has fueled public frustration and prompted politicians, including some moderate Democrats, to push for a reduction in their spread – much to the chagrin of some camp advocates.
“It’s increasingly just illegal to be homeless across the country — in Republican and Democratic cities alike,” said Mark Horvath, CEO of Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Invisible People. “But it’s not like we can stay out of this crisis.”
In addition to the right to sleep outdoors, the Homeless Bill of Rights passed in New York would also codify the city’s longstanding right to lodging, the only one of its kind among the nation’s largest cities.
The measure’s nine rights include protection from coercion in facilities that do not conform to a person’s gender identity. It also gives people the right to apply for housing assistance and requires parents in shelters to have diapers for their babies.
“This is a sensible and compassionate political response to unprecedented homelessness,” said Taysha Milagros Clark, policy and data analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City.
“The Bill of Rights really does recognize that the homeless have rights. They didn’t break any laws or anything just because of their homeless status,” she said. “It’s a clear departure from what this administration has been doing.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Adams, said the mayor is still considering the measure.
“Since day one of this term, Mayor Adams has focused on helping homeless New Yorkers and providing them with a clean, safe place to sleep at night,” Levy said.
The mayor’s subway safety program has resulted in more than 4,600 homeless New Yorkers 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 restricting the establishment of a campground. Most city parks close at 1am. Private property is taboo. Sidewalks and streets must be free of obstacles.
People are forbidden from lying down on benches or seats on the city’s subways, though enforcement is lax.
The city of New York is required by law to give anyone who needs it space in its vast shelter system, but the system is collapsing in part due to the influx of migrants, many of whom entered the US via the southern border.
Almost 81,000 people were accommodated in the emergency shelters in the past week. The city administration struggled to find more space and, among other things, rented entire hotels to families without permanent accommodation.
Some people choose to live on the streets because they find the city’s shelters dangerous or overcrowded, don’t like their rules or curfews, or because they find it difficult to be with other people.
Jumaane Williams, New York City’s elected public advocate and now a sponsor of the homeless rights measure before Adams, said he would like the city to focus less on preventing camps and more on addressing what he believes are the causes of the crisis are: rising housing costs, unemployment, racism, addiction and mental illness.
“I think we’re in a bad situation because of things that have been going on for decades,” Williams said.
The concept of a Bill of Rights for the homeless has been around for more than a decade. In 2012, Rhode Island was the first state to introduce such a system, followed soon after by Connecticut and Illinois.
“To date, none of them have explicitly protected a person’s right to sleep outside,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.
Five years ago, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Boise, Idaho, could not prevent people from sleeping outside if there was no other place to sleep. The court held that this would criminalize the homeless. The court ruled that the right to sleep outside only exists if no shelter is available.
Weber reported from Los Angeles.