Does More ‘Rights’ For The Homeless Solve The Problem?

Homeless activist Mohammed Aly assisting encampment resident with re-situating herself.

Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote critically about “a political culture that rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good.”

There’s certainly a lot of that going around the progressive precincts of Anaheim politics. This thoughtful essay by public policy scholar Stephen Eide – which originally appeared in the OC Register on August 14 – is worth reading as Anaheim and other California jurisdictions continue to grapple with rising homelessness.

What’s Wrong with More Rights for the Homeless?

As officials in California continue to cast about for solution to the state’s ongoing homelessness crisis, some have called for instituting a “right to shelter.” The most notable example would be co-chairs of Gov. Newsom’s homelessness task force, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Last week, Gov. Newsom said that while he did not endorse a right to shelter, he considered it to be an important idea to debate.

Central to any debate over a right to shelter for the homeless is the experience of New York City, where I work. It is certainly true that New York’s right to shelter, rooted in a consent decree signed by mayor Ed Koch in 1981, has long stood at the center of the city’s response to homelessness. Mayor Steinberg specifically cited New York’s experience as a model for California to emulate.

From a New York perspective, it is curious to hear such praise. New Yorkers are known for their boastfulness, but, outside the ranks of those tasked with developing and defending the city’s homeless services system, few now take much pride in that system. Homelessness ranks as a leading topic of concern in surveys of public attitudes about the greatest challenges the city is facing these days, just as it does in California. In my experience, most ordinary New Yorkers say that they believe the problem on the streets and subways has gotten worse over the last ten years.

New York’s experience with the right to shelter demonstrates limitations of such an approach, for at least three reasons. First, while it’s true that New York has a low rate of unsheltered homelessness, that is substantially driven by our cold winters. Many researchers have identified a connection between cold January climates and low rates of unsheltered homelessness. If the raw rate of unsheltered homeless is your standard for success in this policy area, California could stand to learn just as much about homelessness from the state of Maine (3.9% unsheltered) as New York City (4.7%).

Second, New York has found the goal of providing quality shelter to be elusive. Mayor Steinberg inadvertently alluded to the distinction between granting a right to shelter and providing quality shelter when, in his recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, he noted New York’s current efforts to expand and reform its shelter system. Those efforts would not be necessary now, almost four decades on, had the right to shelter on its own been more effective in addressing homelessness. Despite our right to shelter, we still grapple with a “service resistant” street population, who, in explaining why they refuse to exercise that right, voice the same litany of complaints against shelters that one hears in the hundreds of jurisdictions without a right to shelter: unsafe, unclean, too many rules and restrictions, etc. And that’s despite the staggering amount we spend on shelter and programs to keep people out of shelter: over $3 billion, or more than the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s “Continuum of Care” program spends for the nation as a whole.

Third, adopting a right to shelter will take homelessness out of the hands of the public and elected officials and transfer authority to courts and lawyers. “Housing First” types whose definition of success in homelessness is how many supportive housing units were built in a given year are right to be concerned. A right to shelter will indeed empower courts and unelected advocates to force cities to spend money on shelter at the expense of other benefits and programs.

Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote critically about “a political culture that rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good.” The expansion of rights for the homeless sounds noble, but will prove of limited use in improving their lives and the lives of the non-homeless who are also affected by the crisis. If California is now looking to New York for solutions on homelessness, the situation must be worse than anyone realizes.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.

3 comments

  1. David Michael Klawe

    What do we, as residents of Anaheim do?

    Well, while not all Homeless fall into these category, but the majority do.

    Mental Illness, that falls onto the County of Orange. They have started the “Be Well” medical program. 3 facilities will be built (North, Central and South). The North County facility has broken ground in the city of Orange. We need to support this effort and make sure APD and our local hospitals work with the program.

    As for Drug and Alcohol Rehab, we have the Drug Free Anaheim program, but alas, it is up to the homeless person to accept treatment.

    So we need to go back in history and come up with ways the folks who can’t make an informed decision due to their illness to get into treatment. And that was law enforcement and the courts.

    So we need the state to change laws to give more oversight to those whose mental facilities are diminished. So that allows law enforcement to enforce the laws on the books, and when the person is in front of a judge, unless agreed to in a plea deal first, has the power to get that person help.

    And of course, get all homeless into programs like the city supported Chrysalis to improve their skills and find better jobs. (Aka offer a hand up). Also programs like Love Anaheim.

    And of course, keep the current shelter program, and keep supporting the Salvation Army for all the homeless, to get folks off the street and into programs that can improve their life and skills.

    While the programs in Anaheim are not perfect, we need to make sure other Orange County cities, and the county itself, offer similar services, to make sure the programs are available county wide. This will help prevent the homeless to go “city shopping” where they move to an area that leaves them alone and not getting services.

    But if someone is not in their right mind, as a society, we need to make sure they get the help they need.

  2. Illegal immigrants have a right to Medicare health insurance in California but homeless US citizens don’t have a right to shelter. Wow.

  3. Maybe the private sector needs to step in and treat these people in kind to how their expected to function in a cheerful and productive enviornment. Why would they choose head meds and a sterile environment over freedom and street drugs? They are traumatized and need to be loved back to wholeness instead of just given a bed and put on drugs that suppress the wounds that landed them where they are in the first place.

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