New York City in the 1970s was a tough place. It suffered from widespread fallout of the fiscal crisis, urban disinvestment, uncontrolled crime and drugs. Thousands of homeless individuals were on the streets, many discharged by the state from failing psychiatric facilities, but the city had just a small number of shelter beds.
Frustrated by inaction, advocates brought a novel lawsuit, relying on a section of the state’s constitution requiring it to provide for “the aid, care and support of the needy. ” The city to a settlement that resulted in the so-called right to shelter — which means that any people in need of beds must receive them the same day they request them — and ongoing court supervision of how that shelter is provided. New York City has miraculously been meeting the right-to-shelter standard for 40 years.
Today there are over 80,000 people living in New York City shelters, over $2 billion a year. Over 40,000 of those people living in the city’s care are asylum seekers who have no prior connection to New York City. Those asylum seekers are now straining the right-to-shelter principle to a breaking point — and even more, they are exposing the ridiculousness of how the right to shelter has been expanded over the years.
Many people are now scratching their heads over why this standard exists at all, let alone in only one place in the country. Mayor Eric Adams is now from its most onerous provisions. When I was appointed by Michael Bloomberg as commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services in New York City in 2002, I was presented with a wish list from the court-appointed lawyers who had been governing the system for, at that point, 20 years.
The wish list looked reasonable: add community intake centers to ease access for those we wanted off the streets; get kids placed to beds earlier so they could rest well for the next day of school. But the strong advice of Homeless Services staff was: Don’t do it. They said that not because they were heartless, but because the legal setup of right to shelter meant that there was no such thing as iterative learning, or testing and failing and trying again.
Instead, any change we made would be codified in place, never to be retooled except with the express consent of the parties and the judge. These were hard-won lessons: The right-to-shelter program had, over the years, been expanded in a series of compromises forced upon a litigation-wary city to prevent a potentially worse court-determined outcome. The size and shape of shelters, the time allowed to act on applications, the minutiae of the rules governing how shelters operate are all either fixed in settlements or subject to court supervision.
The Bloomberg years at Homeless Services resulted in significant gains outside the shelter system that have been sustained here and replicated internationally — citywide street counts to measure progress in moving people into accommodation, a Safe Haven model that meets clients where they are in their journey and a big expansion of supportive housing in the city’s history. The right to shelter, however, has frozen the shelter system in the past. The right to shelter is not good policy.
It feels humane, a fundamentally decent thing to do for so many who have suffered a bad turn of events or a lifetime of crisis. But when governed as an absolute right, the dynamics get distorted, a condition worsened when the definition of the right is in the hands of the court. Any complex service organization is a constantly shifting environment of supports, incentives and conditions.
Mediated through the eyes of the advocates and their attorneys, the city has been hamstrung in its efforts to adapt the shelter system to meet emerging needs. Other cities and states faced with growing homeless populations are wondering if they, too, should institute a right to shelter. Again, I would say no.
Even if all the terms of shelter were under the control of the local government, establishing a guarantee to anyone who presents a need changes the behaviors of all actors. I recall calls to our hotline coming in from family members asking for the address of a shelter intake so they could drop off their problematic family members, and from child welfare workers who would use the shelter system to achieve family reunification for a parent ready to resume caretaking but lacking housing that met regulatory standards for reunification. In other words, the policy lets people off the hook from doing what is needed to secure decent housing for people in their care.
A right to shelter also crowds out better solutions, starving resources from other approaches to address housing instability. Increasingly, evidence is demonstrating the success of community-based homelessness prevention efforts that seek to resolve the issues that lead to eviction. Other promising solutions can be found in efforts to provide short-term rental assistance rather than shelter, and in so-called supportive housing programs, in which people are given at-home attention to help them maintain housing stability.
These efforts work, but of course, they cost money. If forced to fund a bloated shelter system, public resources remaining for real solutions are starved. Given all this, you might assume I believe New York City should repeal the right to shelter.
But to that I say: God, no. Sadly, I still fear where our vulnerable populations would go without this protection. Our society has been far too willing to discharge people from prisons, emergency rooms and mental health facilities, and to evict them from their homes without a second thought as to where they wind up.
Just look at , and . It’s not pretty. But something does have to change.
What we have now is just not working, and that was true before the deluge from the border. New York City’s hands are tied in an undemocratic usurpation of public will by the lawyers and courts defining how a right to shelter should be satisfied. Defining who is eligible, what shelter looks like and what shelter residents should be required to do to participate in solutions are all tied up in inflexible settlements, and often subject to court supervision and control.
It is unreasonable and illogical in its rigidity, prevents innovation and experimentation for better solutions and is unresponsive to the voice of the people to respond to extraordinary circumstances. New York City should ask the courts to be released from consents and settlements of years ago that hinder how the city can respond to the urgent needs of the day most effectively, and court supervision should end. Mayor Adams’s need to go to court, hat in hand, asking for permission for modest adjustments makes the point: Why does a legally elected city leader need to appeal to a judge for permission to do what is necessary to manage a fundamental service in the throes of crisis? In exchange for releasing it from the court order, the New York City Council, elected to represent the people of the city, should adopt legislation that codifies the right to shelter into local law and assigns the responsibility to the Department of Homeless Services to ensure the need is met.
Only then will a rational system that responds to emerging needs appropriately be capable of performing its given duty. Linda Gibbs, a principal at Bloomberg Associates, served from 2002 to 2005 as New York City commissioner of homeless services and from 2006 to 2013 as deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, all under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
She is the co-author of “ . ”.