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Will America’s first “right to sleep outside” actually help the homeless? | New York

New York City could soon pass a “Homeless Bill of Rights” with “the right to sleep outside,” something no other major U.S. city has done.

If signed by Mayor Eric Adams, the proposal, which passed the New York City Council unanimously last month, would add a new plan to the city’s own protections for homeless residents. Since 1979, New York City has been one of the only places in the country with a “right of refuge,” requiring the government to provide under-roof beds for those who need them.

New York City Public Advocate Juman Williams said: bill of rightscalled it “a fundamental standard, a moral and legal obligation that the city must fulfill for homeless and vulnerable New Yorkers.” (Public defenders are elected citywide monitors who can introduce legislation but cannot vote.) In addition to specifying rights, it also includes the right to have an interpreter and the right to sleep outdoors. Being placed in a shelter according to one’s gender identity.

But while the bill could be a promising step toward decriminalizing homelessness, supporters say confusion over the wording of the law is hampering its progress. Also excluded is the right that would actually solve the problem: the right to housing.

“We’re basically begging and begging the authorities to let us sleep in the wind and rain,” said Deborah Padgett, a leading expert on homelessness at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work. And it’s a sad situation,” he said. “If you think about it, why is it a right? Housing should be a right.”

“If you feel unsafe in a shelter, you won’t be able to sleep there.”

New York City’s homeless population reached an estimated 78,000 this month, according to city data, due in part to an influx of asylum seekers and immigrants from states along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is the cause. The city’s traditional shelter system has reached its limits, and authorities are trying to increase capacity by repurposing everything from hotels to school gymnasiums. However, the disruption has made it more difficult for existing homeless residents to access shelters that are already overcrowded and have a widespread reputation as unsafe.

Every night, thousands of New Yorkers are homeless and sleep on the streets and subways. Chris Serissier, homeless advocacy organizer for Vocal New York, a local nonprofit, says they shouldn’t stop doing that. “These beds are not necessarily humane or safe. People will not sleep there if they feel unsafe in the shelter.”

Evacuation centers are also restricted, no outdoor dining is allowed, and residents will lose their beds if they do not observe curfews. Many people “would rather be in public places, because at least they have autonomy over how they move, where they can go, when they act, whether they want to find food.” says Serissier. “For many people, that choice is much more valuable than a bed.”

However, like the rest of the country, it is fundamentally a crime to exist unprotected in New York. New York State does not explicitly ban sleeping outdoors, but most city parks are closed at night and there are restrictions on blocking sidewalks and sleeping across multiple seats on the subway. Former cop Adams has led a series of highly publicized investigations. campsite and subwayAnd he gave the New York City Police Department the power to hospitalize homeless people against their will if they believed they were mentally ill. “These are just ways to imprison people who sleep outdoors and make it illegal to sleep outdoors,” said Serissier.

The bill contains details that raise questions about whether it really creates new protections. Photo: Richard Drew/AP

Other U.S. cities, such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have gone a step further by enacting “sit lie” ordinances banning people from sitting or lying on sidewalks and making it a crime to pitch a tent in public. passed anti-camp laws. space. “Every municipality and county I know of has a cleanup,” says New York University researcher Padgett. “They’re supposed to give people enough time to warn them and move on. Then they come over and take everything else, including the entire tent, and load it onto a garbage compactor truck.”

Padgett said that punishing people for living outdoors will only make them more homeless. “The things we all do indoors start a whole cycle of criminal records, making it even harder to get rentals and landlord approval.”

Does the “right to sleep outside” really work?

In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that local governments cannot enforce laws prohibiting outdoor sitting or sleeping if no shelter is available. Doing so would violate the constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, he said. “Unless there is an option to sleep indoors, the government cannot criminalize sleeping outdoors on public property, based on the false premise that poor and homeless people had a choice on this issue. No,” said the panel judge.

Under the ruling, cities could continue to enforce anti-homeless laws as long as they offer people a place to sleep for the night. In fact, there’s no guarantee that these alternative shelters will actually meet people’s needs, said Eric Tarz, the National Security Agency’s legal director. homeless law center. “At some shelters, you have to line up every day and there is no promise that you will get a bed after the night you sleep there. [people] If they are kicked out into the street the next night without a tent or sleeping bag, we leave them even worse. ”

That’s why, while far from the ultimate goal, passing the right to sleep outdoors could reduce harm to homeless people who “can sleep or seek refuge without the threat of fines or harassment.” says the lawyer.

But New York’s proposed homeless bill of rights contains details that raise questions about whether it really creates new protections.

A clause buried near the end states that the rights specified do not contain a “private cause of action”, meaning that no one can sue if these rights are violated. increase. It also said the homeless bill of rights should not be “interpreted as conferring new rights,” which Tars called “highly contradictory” language. “It makes me worry about how much dedication they put into it.” [lawmakers] It’s about equalizing the chances of mitigating the harm of this kind of law,” he says.

Williams’ office said that the “rights” “exist in agency regulations and other city guidelines,” and that the bill would “aggregate” them into a “single declaration,” stating that “these rights It allows homeless people to assert themselves when their personal information is violated.” Specifically, it ensures that the Homeless Services Division “must make homeless people aware that sleeping outside is not expressly prohibited.”

police officer looking at tent
Photo: Derek French/Rex/Shutterstock

The New York Police Department cleared more than 3,000 homeless camps last year, including multiple times, with one camp cleared 97 times in six months, according to city data. It is shown that However, only 5% of those living in dismantled camps agreed to enter the shelter system.

Still, Adams kept the sweep going. “You sit in those tents and camps and you see human excrement, stale food, dirty clothes, people with mental health crises and you say that’s how they should live. Am I being pretentious? I’m not,” he said at a press conference last year.

housing first

Even if the unprotected homeless were decriminalized, that alone would not be enough, Tarz said. “That’s why we don’t just say ‘no handcuffs,’ but ‘housing, not handcuffs.’ Because you need a plan for the next step. ”

The lawyer fears New York’s unprotected “right to sleep outside” could be the “worst of the worst” for homeless people. It’s a backlash anyway. ”

In places like Portland, where bans on camping were suspended after the Ninth Circuit ruling, some homeless people began camping in more visible public places, eventually seeking to criminalize camping. The demand has gotten louder, he said.

And the law won’t address the more pressing question of “How do we get people into housing so they don’t go out on the streets in the first place?”

Padgett is a prominent advocate of a paradigm called “.housing firstHe argues that the only real way to solve homelessness is to stop making homeless people jump through hoops and instead give them instant access to permanent, affordable housing. increase. Only then can people have the stability to cope with life’s other challenges.

Adams on the podium surrounded by others
Mayor Eric Adams discussed homelessness at city hall last year. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

The Housing First movement was started by activists in New York City, but it’s not really practiced here. To do that, Padgett said, he needs to look to parts of Canada, Western Europe, and countries like Chile. “It’s proven by the evidence. It’s just the way to end homelessness. Other approaches don’t work.”

Proponents often talk about the “housing ladder,” the path from homelessness to well-being, but in American cities the steps of the ladder are precarious and well-spaced.

In New York, under rules introduced by former mayor Rudy Giuliani that Adams refused to revoke, to apply for a rental apartment subsidy, homeless people must be working and have lived in a shelter for at least 90 days. you have to prove that you are. . Similarly, applying for assisted housing, a form of communal living with private rooms, requires completing multiple interviews, mental health assessments, and a ton of paperwork. Even if they do qualify, they face long delays in getting approval from understaffed city bureaucracies, not to mention discrimination from landlords.

Structural changes turned out to be elusive. Shelters are better than nothing, but they are also very expensive. It costs the city about $4,000 a month to provide a shelter bed for one adult, but Padgett thinks that money might be better spent on housing. But the city’s shelter orders make diversion of funds difficult, and nonprofits that pay lucrative contracts to run shelters “have little incentive” to improve their services or disrupt the status quo, she said. says.

The Homeless Bill of Rights doesn’t do much to change that. But there is a good chance the bill will pass. Even if Mr. Adams vetoed, the city council would have enough votes to override the veto. Padgett hopes this is a sign that lawmakers may have enough political ties to start talking about housing first. “I think there’s empathy. It’s just a matter of changing priorities, but if you spend billions of dollars on the current system, it’s going to be difficult. I’m really down.” Will America’s first “right to sleep outside” actually help the homeless? | New York

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