Does SF Need NY’s “Right to Shelter” Law?

A homeless youth shelter in New York.

One stands as the financial and cultural hub of the world. The other is the center of the global tech universe. In the battle between New York and San Francisco, residents of these two iconic cities are quick to list reasons why their city is superior.

But historically, the two are more similar than they are different. Often dubbed the “New York of the West Coast,” San Francisco has long stood as the shining capital of liberalism for the western United States. Together, they have paved the way for American progressivism for decades, forging unprecedented ground on a number of political, environmental, and social issues.

But when it comes to matters of homelessness, San Francisco falls oddly short. In fact, compared to its eastern counterpart, San Francisco has made remarkably little progress in helping its homeless population. As the two cities with the largest homeless populations in the country, it bears asking why San Francisco is consistently at the center of the “homeless debate,” while New York seems strangely absent.

The Dawn of Homelessness

To fully understand the situation, one must take a brief stroll back to the late 1970s, when the country showed the first signs of mass homelessness since the great depression.

Contemporary homelessness didn’t emerge until the late 1970s, in New York City. Before then, the homeless population largely consisted of a small number of those who were down on their luck; generally, middle-aged white men who had lost their jobs, and were often suffering from health issues or alcohol and drug addictions. These men were living in skid row areas like the Bowery, out of sight from the rest of New York’s populace.  It was not mass homelessness

But when the late 1970s hit, the homeless population suddenly became much more visible. They began showing up in every neighborhood, with countless numbers of people sleeping in the streets, on church steps, and in public squares. And they bore new faces: young people, children, families, and minorities. New York’s landscape became dotted with an unfamiliar and unsettling scene.

Mass homelessness in the seventies emerged for a number of reasons. Some cite the deinstitutionalization of mental health care, which released mentally ill patients from large state facilities during that time. Others point the finger to growing substance abuse. Scholars tend to propose the rapid rise in income inequality as the main reason, with the widening gap in the housing market making it difficult for poorer people to afford housing. But the underlying reason was a federal divestment from housing: Reagan, who was the president at the time, cut the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development was cut by 77 percent, leaving state and local governments with little to offer their constituents.

The homeless population in New York was one the city could no longer ignore. Forced to fend for themselves on the streets, the homeless began suffering terrible injuries, with many dying as a result. The city was faced with an urgent and growing problem.

History is Made

Enter Robert Hayes: a fresh-faced, 26-year old lawyer who was just starting to make a name for himself on Wall Street. Hayes, who received his law degree from N.Y.U., was living in the Washington Square neighborhood in 1979, right when the tides of homelessness were starting to surge.

Noticing the many homeless people on and around his street, Hayes grew curious about their stories. He began to chat with them, and what started as simple curiosity blossomed into hundreds of hours of interviewing homeless New Yorkers. They spoke of the difficulties in being forced to live on the streets. Some were denied shelter entirely. The ones who were admitted into city shelters described the horrors of having to stay in one. These shelters were dangerous, degrading, unsanitary, and overcrowded.

Hayes was shocked at what he heard. He concluded that the city and state were neglecting their legal obligation to provide safe, humane shelter for the city’s homeless. In October 1979, Hayes filed a class-action lawsuit against the city on behalf of all homeless New Yorkers, in a trial that would come to be known as the landmark case of Callahan v. Carey.

The lead plaintiff, Robert Callahan, was a homeless man suffering from chronic alcoholism whom Hayes found sleeping on the streets in the Bowery, New York City’s skid row. The defendant, Hugh L. Carey, was the then-governor. Hayes argued that the city was legally required to provide the proper aid, care, and support for the needy, as outlined in the New York State Constitution.

In a short but fierce battle, the New York State Supreme Court eventually issued a ruling in December 1979, in favor of Robert Callahan and the rest of the homeless population. The city and state were ordered to provide emergency shelter for homeless men immediately, in light of the harsh winter that was around the corner. Almost instantly, homeless people disappeared from the streets into whatever makeshift shelters the city could create.

And thus, Callahan v. Carey became a landmark victory for homeless people everywhere. Tragically, Robert Callahan himself died on the streets of the Bowery shortly before the law was signed. But under his name, the case cemented the first rights for homeless people in the country, and spawned a furious debate over what is now known as the “Right to Shelter.”

An Inalienable Right

Since the law was passed in 1979, it’s paved the way for further legal victories that would provide shelter for homeless men, women, children, and families across New York City. The right to shelter policy mandates the city to provide shelter for New Yorkers who are homeless by “reason of physical, mental or social dysfunction,” regardless of whether funding exists.

The city currently has over 280 shelters, with more on the way. But the homeless problem is too large to contain only in shelters. When there are none available, the city turns to “cluster” sites (privately owned apartment buildings used to house homeless families), which can often be dangerous, or hotel rooms, which can cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Today, there are at least 61,000 adults and children living in just the city shelters in New York, and the numbers show no signs of stopping. Every year, more homeless people show up at shelter doors, and the city spends billions of dollars a year providing for its growing homeless population. The law is obviously not without its faults, and is often a point of controversy among New York residents. Critics say that the right to shelter discourages people from self-sufficiency, incentivizes more people to claim homelessness, and encourages nearby out-of-staters to take advantage of the law, thereby increasing the number of homeless people in New York each year. Advocates argue that the mandate could be interpreted as a coercive law—one that punishes homeless people for being homeless and criminalizes poverty. With cities across the nation forcing homeless people out of public space, a “Right to Shelter” could very well be the best tool to do so, despite poor shelter conditions.  More often, the argument against the law is that it institutionalized thousands of poor and working class New Yorkers in congregate settings with no way out of homelessness, as it traps millions of dollars in municipal resources to be spent on shelters instead of housing. 

But advocates for the right to shelter mandate argue that it is a moral responsibility to provide shelter for all. Indeed, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

And since there is no real proof that the right to shelter is directly contributing to a rise in homelessness, the city continues to provide for its homeless population, despite serious financial ramifications. Perhaps the more important right is a right to housing.

The City by the Bay

So, where does that leave San Francisco? The city’s homeless population is one of the largest in the nation, second only to New York City. While San Francisco has no doubt taken great strides to provide for its homeless, the fact remains that there are still thousands of unsheltered San Franciscans sleeping in the streets, in front of doorways, in public parks, and in metro stations. The question is, why hasn’t a right to shelter law been passed in San Francisco? Or, perhaps the larger question: Would a mandate like that even be possible for the City by the Bay?

The short answer is no, and it’s probably a no-brainer as to why. San Francisco, with its 49 square miles of land, is significantly smaller than New York City. There simply isn’t enough land to build the necessary shelters for the city’s approximately 7,499 documented homeless people (plenty more remain undocumented). With Silicon Valley causing a massive influx of new, wealthy residents into the city, space is very much at a premium—and the homeless population just isn’t being prioritized. And, of course, the zoning laws that have indirectly contributed to San Francisco’s rapid-fire gentrification certainly aren’t helping the homeless situation either.

The weather also plays a part. New York has to deal with grueling winters and freezing temperatures, which carry dangers of frostbite and hypothermia. In fact, the main reason Callahan v. Carey was enforced so quickly was due to the looming winter ahead, and the massive risks it posed for homeless New Yorkers. San Francisco, with its temperate climate and mild seasons, lacks the same urgency in protecting its homeless from the elements.

As is always the case, however, the true reason why San Francisco doesn’t have a right to shelter law is a complicated one. When the homeless crisis hit the streets of San Francisco in the mid-1980s, the city was right alongside the rest of the country in providing people with relief (namely, a roof, a bed, and a sandwich). The prevailing thought was to give the homeless a place to rest and recover, so they could quickly get back on their feet.

Obviously, this didn’t work as planned. Cities across the nation grappling with homelessness discovered that temporary shelters accomplished very little in easing the number of homeless citizens. They soon realized what we know today: the only way to deal with homelessness is to tackle the root of the cause, whether it’s mental illness, substance abuse, disabilities, joblessness, eviction—and just plain, ol’ poverty.

The unfortunate reality for San Francisco was that doing anything more than providing a bed for a night would be much too costly for the city.

That isn’t to say that officials didn’t try. While it hasn’t had a right to shelter law like its East Coast sister, San Francisco has still been a national leader in homelessness initiatives. The city was one of the first to create shelters that also provided mental health and substance-abuse counselors on site (unfortunately, these shelter-counsel facilities are now only traditional shelters). Over the past 15 years, the city has put a roof over the heads of thousands of people. And in the last year, San Francisco spent $275 million on homelessness and supportive housing—and that number is projected to reach $305 million in the next year.

But even with all its best efforts, San Francisco hasn’t been able to improve its homeless situation. Much as it was 20 years ago, the city is alive with the grim scenes of those who are left to carve out a living on the streets.

The Shelter Problem

It is worth mentioning that there are only three jurisdictions in the United States that currently guarantee a right to shelter: the state of Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Each one has varying degrees of regulations and enforcement. (Philadelphia also implemented a right to shelter mandate for a brief period in the mid-1980s to 1990s, but both Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia rolled back their laws when the financial obligations became too much for the cities.)

San Francisco has a handful of shelters, most of them for emergency or short-term cases. They range from traditional shelters run by nonprofits, to facilities that cater to specific groups, like young adults, families, or the LGBTQ community. In total, the city has a little more than 1,200 shelter beds available for the single adult homeless population.

A homeless person can get an emergency shelter bed for one night fairly quickly, but anything else is a lengthy process. Those seeking supportive housing, longer-term shelter beds, or any kind of service need to register at one of the city’s four shelter registration sites, then join a waitlist that could last for months. Waitlists are consistently over 1,000 people long. Some, like the public housing list, are so long, they close.

Then, there’s the actual shelter itself. Shelters come with rigid rules: men and women aren’t allowed to sleep together, pets and belongings are limited, strict curfews are enforced, there are no in-and-out privileges, there are set meal times, and they are often closed during the day. And shelters can be dangerous as well, with many homeless people citing theft, violence, and the temptation to use drugs as reasons why they avoid the facilities. For a lot of homeless people, it’s easier and safer to stay on the streets rather than go through the hassle of finding a shelter bed.

These problems aren’t unique to San Francisco shelters; New York’s homeless people face similar circumstances. But in an unfortunate twist, homeless New Yorkers oftentimes don’t even have the choice to stay on the streets. In addition to its right to shelter law, New York has passed other initiatives regarding the treatment and care of the homeless, one of which includes forcibly removing homeless people from the streets and placing them in shelters involuntarily (again, a law driven largely by the threats of winter in New York).

It’s clear that shelters as they exist now—whether emergency, short-term, or permanent—are not a true solution.

A New Solution

Luckily, San Francisco has recently made significant progress in innovating its shelter program. With the opening of the Navigation Centers in the Mission District, the Civic Center Hotel, and the Dogpatch neighborhood, the city may finally be inching closer to a more feasible solution for helping its homeless.

Unlike traditional homeless shelters, the Navigation Centers don’t have the rigid rules that keep many homeless people away. Residents can come and go as they please, and eat whenever they want. Partners can sleep next to each other, pets are allowed, and all belongings can be stored safely at the Center.

But perhaps the biggest difference is the supportive services offered at the Navigation Centers. Reminiscent of the shelter-counsel facilities the city tried to operate in the 1980s, the Navigation Centers focus on working with the residents to figure out a solution to end their homelessness. Each person is assigned a case manager, who will help make medical appointments, get proper identification cards, qualify for government benefits, find permanent housing, or, for some, get a bus ticket home. They are able to access mental and physical care, addiction counseling, and even reconnect with estranged family members.

Of course, the cost in running these Navigation Centers is much higher compared to traditional shelters. While a traditional shelter bed costs an average of $36 a night to operate, Navigation Center beds cost around $69 a night due to the more involved case management for each resident.

But these are shelters that some homeless people prefer to stay at, although exits into housing has been few and far between. While some are offered permanent supportive housing, many are forced to exit out of the shelter after 30 to 60 days. People like Navigation Centers and the City is committed to maintaining and opening more Navigation Centers, which at least three more planned in the next two years, but there must be housing if real progress is to be made.

There will unlikely ever be a true one-size-fits-all solution for homelessness at the city and state level. While the Navigation Centers represent a welcome, albeit temporary, respite from the streets, San Francisco and New York need to push not just for innovative forms of shelter, but also permanent, affordable housing for its homeless populations.