The “Right to Shelter” is Not Good For The Homeless or Our Communities

By: Tim Houchen
September 3, 2019 —

The discussion of a homeless “right to shelter” has been a hot topic ever since an op-ed written in July by Sacramento mayor, Darrell Steinberg was published in the L.A. Times. It was suggested in Steinberg’s opinion that while he strongly believed in the housing first concept, there was an insufficient amount of housing stock to address the current crisis and that it would cost too much and take too long to build. He went on to cite increases in unsheltered homeless deaths as a reason for facilitating an “infusion” of short-term shelter and housing options to help those currently living on the streets.

“First, we need to establish the legal right of all people to sleep inside either through executive, legislative or court action.” He said that establishing the right was important to establishing an obligation for homeless persons living on the streets to come inside. These were all necessary in order for the state to build enough shelters because of recent court rulings that say cities and counties can’t enforce illegal camping laws unless shelter is available.

” For a model, we can look to New York. ” wrote Steinberg. He was referring to a “right to shelter” program that has been active in New York for 40 years. The New York right to shelter does not legally obligate homeless persons to utilize shelters there. Apparently, people in New York don’t have much pride in the program and at least one man from Manhattan is curious of hearing such praise coming from California.

” If California is now looking to New York for solutions on homelessness, the situation must be worse than anyone realizes,” says Stephen Eide, a journalist from Manhattan. Eide wrote an op-ed that was published in the OC Register in August titled, What’s wrong with more rights for the homeless?

In his article, Eide seems to be warning Californians of an incoming doom and paints a picture of run down motels used for shelters and more problems than those problems we are already dealing with in the shelters we have now. Eide criticizes the program because it spends money on shelters that could be used to provide permanent housing.

A second commentary from both Steinberg and Mark Riddley-Thomas backs away from New York as a model of right to shelter and minimizes homeless obligation to utilize shelters

On August 25, 2019, about two weeks after Stephen Eide’s op-ed appeared in the OC Register, another commentary was published in CAL MATTERS, this time authored by both Steinberg and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Riddley-Thomas. Both men co-chair the Governor’s Homeless Task Force .

The second commentary written by Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas, suggests that the state’s objective should be clear, “Housing is a human right, and having a roof over your head should be a legal right.”

The objective sounds somewhat ambiguous, as if there were two different laws for two different types of roofs. A human right to housing and a legal right to shelters? It’s difficult to determine exactly what Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas are trying to sell here. Is it housing or shelters?

There were two critical elements of Steinberg’s original proposal that were retracted from in the more recent commentary from both Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas. The term “flip-flop” could accurately be applied to both.

The Steinberg solo commentary mentions the New York right to shelter as the model that should be applied in California. The dual commentary from Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas retracts by saying, ” We do not advocate replicating New York’s right to shelter. There is not enough focus in New York’s effort yet to build more permanent housing with the necessary services to help people transition out of their shelter system.” This is likely in response to Stephan Eide’s Orange County Register op-ed published two weeks prior.

The second flip-flop in the right to shelter proposal is the element of obligation of homeless persons to utilize shelters. The second commentary retracts from the first saying that obligation of homeless persons to utilize shelters, “is not the thrust of our proposal.” If that’s the case, what’s left?

The courts have already decided that cities and counties cannot enforce camping ordinances targeting homeless persons unless they first provide sufficient shelter beds for them. The courts fell short of ruling on any obligation for homeless persons to utilize the shelters much to the dismay of local governments. Establishing a state law that includes some kind of legal obligation to use the shelters might be the lightening rod that many local elected officials are seeking as they struggle with “service resistant” street populations.

Steinberg implied in his first commentary that we now have a Governor that has made reducing chronic homelessness a top priority and that a right to shelter law might come by way of an executive order. In August, Governor Gavin Newsom said that while he did not endorse a right to shelter, he considered it an important idea to debate.

On August 28th, Newsom backed away from a campaign promise to appoint a “cabinet-level secretary” on homelessness. His plan is to instead rely on the Homeless Task Force led by Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas, he told reporters.

“To me it’s a distinction that is insignificant. They’re profoundly influential to me, de facto cabinet members,” Newsom said. “They have complete, universal access to me, more than, I would argue, even cabinet members.”

The second commentary from Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas alludes to the fact that the right to shelter and the obligation for people to accept shelters was a “big idea” (likely coming from the Homeless Task Force) launched to inspire debate and cause “a predictable stir.”

It leads to wonder where does the Governor really stand on the right to shelter proposal?

Is this an example of three politicians testing the courts of public opinion with a proposal for public policy that appears to benefit persons experiencing homelessness, but instead seeks to benefit City Council’s and County Boards across the state?Steinberg is a mayor and Riddley-Thomas is a county supervisor. Both represent what City Council’s and County Boards across the state want most. They want more laws in their war-chests to combat visible homelessness. It makes no matter to them that criminalizing homelessness has never worked in the past, but it does take homeless people off of the streets, at least temporarily. When a homeless person is arrested, all of their “stuff” is confiscated and thrown away. It is this visible “stuff” that aggravates constituents most and guys like Riddley-Thomas and Steinberg along with elected officials up and down the state need votes in order to arrive at their next political destinations. They must at least appear to be doing something.

This is not about giving rights to the homeless. Legislation to introduce a Homeless Bill of Rights has failed twice in California in 2012 and again in 2015. Earlier this year legislation failed that would have given homeless persons legal protection from hate crimes by adding homelessness to the Ralph Civil Rights Act. When has any politician ever been concerned about the rights of homeless persons?

The first thing that Steinberg and Riddley-Thomas should do is to change the name of this “big idea.” Call it, “Shelter First” or “Housing Maybe,” any name would be more suitable without reference to giving rights to homeless persons as a guise. What it does is, it vilifies homeless advocates that push housing first and who would certainly oppose the idea of a right to shelter as proposed. Otherwise, who would deny more rights for the homeless?

The settlement of homeless lawsuits has seen the proliferation of homeless shelters at a rate never before seen here in Orange County. Each facility has been opened with an intention, not as much to provide care for the homeless, but for the purpose of restoring the authority to enforce camping ordinances. The conditions at some of these shelters have been so bad that advocates should be calling for a homeless right not to shelter. The present proposal mentions nothing about standardizing the quality of care in existing shelter facilities and very little about the structure of future facilities in a new state program.

In the years that I have been advocating for the homeless, I have seen millions of dollars of federal funding pumped into my county, and I have seen my county perform only enough to qualify for the next round of funding. Over the years when large sums of funding were made available from the state for homelessness, it was left on the table because it would have required a matching amount of funds. Myself and other advocates have practically begged for years that the county make some kind of investment from the general fund that would create low and extremely low-income housing and permanent supportive housing that would pull the most vulnerable people off of the streets. It was too much to ask even in the face of Point-in-Time surveys that supported our claims that the problem was growing.

A failure to commit to addressing homelessness is not uncommon in our cities either. Look at how many cities have been slow to become compliant to state housing element law. Early in his tenure as Governor, Gavin Newsom filed suit against Huntington Beach for not meeting the needs for affordable housing there and he warned cities across the state that they should become compliant with their state mandated housing obligations or risk losing local authority over land-use.

Experts on Homelessness have provided data that shows how the criminalization of homeless persons makes it harder for them to find employment and housing. The federal government has even offered incentives to municipalities that reduce ordinances targeted at persons experiencing homelessness for this reason, yet many municipalities still choose enforcement and in many cases expand or create new ordinances. This in despite of data showing that local policies dominated by enforcing laws aimed at the homeless are costly to taxpayers and have no record of ever being successful.

If the homeless problem is to be solved in our communities, it must be that the solutions evolve within our communities. Our citizens need to be encouraged to take part in any solution and our leaders need to be responsible for this encouragement. At stake is the quality-of-life in our communities. Who would better preserve that quality-of-life than the people living in those communities?

The right to shelter is an idea that takes responsibility away from cities and counties and gives the responsibility to solve homelessness to the state.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take away our ability to preserve the quality-of-life in our communities.

This article was written and published by Tim Houchen


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