What can LA learn from New York’s ‘right to shelter’ law?

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A person sleeps at Times Square subway station in Midtown Manhattan. Photo by Shutterstock.

In New York City, more people are experiencing homelessness than in all of LA County, according to the most recent counts. But in New York, far fewer people sleep outside on the streets. That’s partly because of the state’s “right to shelter” law, which requires NYC to provide emergency shelter to every unhoused person who qualifies.  

Now one state lawmaker is proposing a similar law in California. His office says it will be taken up by the Legislature next year. It’s a relevant time to look at the history of New York’s policy and what California or LA could learn.

How did New York’s “right to shelter” mandate come to be?

It goes back to a class action lawsuit brought against the city and state of New York in 1979 on behalf of unhoused men. The lead plaintiff was Bob Callahan, who slept on the streets of Manhattan and suffered from alcoholism. The young lawyer who filed the case, Robert Hayes (who went on to launch the Coalition for the Homeless), had met Callahan while volunteering at a homeless services center.

“I had absolutely no influence, and no one really particularly wanted to talk to me,” Hayes recalled. “And if the city and state governments won’t help, the federal government's not going to help, what do you do? You get angry and you go to court.”

The case settled with the negotiation of a consent decree in 1981 that required the city to add shelters. Subsequent lawsuits expanded the mandate so it applied to everyone, not just men.

What are pros and cons of New York’s current shelter system?

New York’s sprawling shelter system costs billions of dollars a year to maintain. 

NYU social work professor Deborah Padgett says, “There's absolutely no incentive from the city or from these nonprofits to end homelessness, to put it bluntly. It’s not that people don't want to end homelessness, but there are thousands of jobs now that depend on homelessness.” 

At the same time, the shelters provide critical services to tens of thousands of people every day.

“Los Angeles has no standing to criticize New York’s approach at all,” says Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row. Having tens of thousands of people in shelters isn’t ideal, he says, but it’s much better than leaving tens of thousands “with no shelter whatsoever … dying on the streets, suffering hunger, thirst, too much sun, cold, suffering brutal assaults and rapes.”

Robert Hayes, the lawyer whose lawsuit led to New York’s “right to shelter” mandate, has mixed feelings on how it’s turned out decades later.

“I dread talking to people who now see homelessness as something that is part of the American landscape,” he says. “We were supposed to end it, and we failed abysmally. On the other hand, having the bedrock in New York of shelter did for sure save lives. So I will condemn the right to shelter because shelters are lousy institutions. And I will celebrate it as a lifesaver for a bunch of people who really needed it.”

Could LA adopt a similar law?

Besides the proposal from Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi to establish a statewide “right to shelter” law, the City and County of LA are under pressure from a federal judge to create more shelter beds. 

Meanwhile, in the City of LA, Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas has proposed a “right to housing” ordinance that’s still being crafted. While a right to housing is a very different framework than a right to shelter, Ridley-Thomas said his proposal could include some transitional or temporary facilities in its definition of housing. The proposal is being analyzed by LA housing officials and is still taking shape.