By David M. Greenwald
The NY Times earlier this week ran a story that Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg introduced a plan to legally obligate that city “to house its growing homeless population.”
The Times writes that this is “a policy shift that would open a new front in the state’s struggle to address what has become a signature California social ill.”
Steinberg noted that residents of California “are becoming homeless faster than we can get people the help they need.”
His solution, a “right to housing” as well as a parallel “obligation” for homeless people to accept shelter when it is offered.
The Times notes: “If passed by the City Council, the measure would be the first of its kind nationally, and would impose a legally enforceable municipal mandate to deal with a humanitarian crisis that has spread in California as the state’s median home value has soared and rents have exploded.”
A cynic might look at the proposal this way: “It could also help the city comply with federal court rulings, such as those in Los Angeles and Boise, Idaho, that have made it increasingly difficult to enforce laws against homeless encampments if officials do not provide alternatives to sleeping outdoors.”
In other words, what looks like a public benefit—housing for the homeless—could also be seen as creating a legal mechanism by which to forcibly clear camps long seen by city officials as a nuisance and a hazard, which cities have been unable to do because, without a place for people to go, courts have precluded officials from doing so.
At the same time, the Times also notes: “A ‘right to housing’ mandate has been long sought by progressives, who argue that public funding and compassion are wasted without the power of law to force cities to supply adequate housing.”
But state and local governments are concerned that, by creating a right to housing, they will create an ongoing cost that they will have trouble affording over time.
At the same time, many housing advocates have concerns about this approach. Like me, they see this as a legally created mechanism to send in the police to crack down and clear encampments—often using heavy force in the process.
The Times, for example, quotes Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, D.C., who warned that the housing rights coupled with the duty by homeless to accept a bed runs “counter to the spirit of the ‘right to housing’ concept.”
Tars told the Times: “The right to housing is based on the inherent dignity of the individual, so a straightforward obligation to accept whatever is offered undermines that.”
Some believe that such a mandate requiring homeless people to accept housing could be difficult to enforce in California. Over the years laws have been enacted that severely restrict civil commitments and forced treatment for mental illness.
Moreover, many advocates believe such civil commitments and forced treatment to be not only unethical but ineffective.
Ironically it was Steinberg himself, when he was in the legislature, who was a leading voice on homelessness and mental health policy that helped established these rights for homeless residents.
He said this week that “sometimes the pendulum swings too far.” He added, “There is no liberty in dying alone on the street.”
This illustrates the problem of dealing with the explosive homeless issue, exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing on the one hand, and the lack of accessibility of mental health and substance abuse services on the other.
The Times notes the different approach of “right to shelter” versus “right housing” laws.
New York, for example, has “right to shelter” laws which are fundamentally different from the similarly named “right to housing” proposal in Sacramento.
The Times notes, “Housing advocates have long criticized ‘right to shelter’ laws as too narrow and too easily used to warehouse homeless people, as opposed to getting them into permanent housing.”
On the other hand, “’Right to housing’ laws are far broader, requiring cities to dramatically expand the supply of long-term housing and move beyond temporary cots and beds in shelters and church basements.”
Homelessness continues to be a vexing problem for California, with more than a quarter of the nation’s homeless population, now estimated at more than 160,000 people.
Right now, cities in California are not required to provide either housing or other services to people without shelter.
The Times writes: “A right to housing would create a legal cudgel, he said, that would force cities to take the often politically difficult steps of constructing affordable housing.”
“It is far past time to address the root of this dysfunction rather than the symptoms,” Mr. Steinberg said. “Name another area of major public concern where everything government does is optional.”
But that figures to be an area of high contention. Still, as we have seen, homeless problems with huge tent cities, large areas of nuisance and waste, have become a matter of concern.
“Increasingly, big-city mayors are going to be judged by what they do on the homeless,” said David Townsend, a veteran political consultant based in Sacramento. “It may not be fair, but it’s the issue on all of their citizens’ minds.”
Los Angeles is also considering a municipal right-to-housing ordinance.
The Times notes: “This spring, a federal judge in Southern California issued an order calling for the city and county of Los Angeles to offer housing and support services to everyone on Skid Row by October as a prerequisite to clearing the homeless encampments that now block the city’s downtown streets. City and county officials are appealing the decision, which if upheld will have broad legal implications.”
“I would rather have Sacramento bravely lead than follow,” Mayor Steinberg said. “Let’s do it ourselves without a court order.”
What will that mean for other cities and the homeless issue overall? Time will tell.