In San Francisco, tangible signs of homelessness are everywhere.
Encampments in the notoriously high-rent California city hug busy thoroughfares, where people seek shelter under overpasses and reside in not-yet-developed slivers of land—until the city or someone else inevitably evicts them, sending them anywhere but here. According to official data released earlier this month, there were 9,784 people without homes in the tech enclave. Meanwhile, New York has the largest homeless population in the country—as of Sunday, there were 58,289 people living in NYC homeless shelters—which makes sense given it is the largest city by population. Yet homelessness is not nearly as visible. Certainly, it's never invited comparisons to Mumbai by UN envoys, the way San Francisco has.
Some of the difference in how many homeless people you see in NYC vs. SF is due to basic spatial dynamics—New York has 302 square miles, compared to San Francisco's 47 (or so), much of which is underdeveloped. But it's also a product of New York's relatively unique "right to shelter" law.
The result of a protracted legal fight, "right to shelter" forces America's largest city to provide temporary shelter to everyone who wants it, every night of the year. This includes traditional shelter beds, of course. But if those are filled, the city is legally obligated to rent out alternatives in hotels and motels to make up the difference. In 2018, according to Politico, that cost the city "$32 million per month for commercial hotels, $2 million for private apartments, also called clusters, and $96 million for traditional shelters."
Compare that to San Francisco's shelter situation, where the current waitlist for a bed is more than 1,000 people deep. It’s part of the reason why, when NYC conducted its "point in time" count—a contested one, it should be noted—of homeless folks last January, there were relatively few—3,588 people—officially sleeping on the streets.
The stark difference in the volume of human beings without a permanent roof over their head is why California lawmakers have been looking to New York as a model for getting the state's homelessness crisis under control. Last year, California State Senator Scott Wiener proposed a version of "right to shelter," and more recently, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas—both members of Governor Gavin Newsom's "Homeless and Supportive Housing Advisory Task Force"—lobbed a similar idea. If passed, it would "compel cities and counties to build large enough shelters to accommodate any homeless person who asks to come indoors," as the LA Times reported.
Sounds good, right? Actually, advocates for homeless people say, the plan is riddled with drawbacks, perhaps chief among them a proposed requirement to force homeless people to enter facilities when they are made available. But critics also took issue with any city or state government's focus being on shelters rather than the larger housing crisis, which they say is a reflection of powerful people with homes wanting those without them to go away.
"When asshole politicians want to introduce shit, they always point to another city that’s doing something, and therefore must be doing it better," said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Program, a coalition of West Coast-based homeless advocates. "They point to everything but housing as the answer."
Speak to a few people experiencing homelessness directly, and the limitations of the shelter system are obvious. They're not homes, and so they come with any number of problems, regardless of what city they belong to.
"It doesn't work because it's undignified and has way too many barriers," said Needa Bee, a woman who lives on the streets of Oakland, California. A full-time student, Bee also has a catering job that necessitates working odd hours—sometimes she finishes up around three in the morning, sometimes she starts at six a.m. She also has children to take care of. For all of these reasons, she can't access a shelter in Oakland, she explained.
"These cookie-cutter systems are not going to work for the most vulnerable people like people with children, seniors, or those with mental health issues," Bee said.
Others have their own reasons. Many shelters don't allow pets. Often, the place in question is too far away from where they work. (Yes, many homeless people have jobs.) Sometimes shelters don't have adequate facilities, are filthy, can't accommodate mental health needs, or are accused of screening people by "sex", an obvious problem if someone is non-binary or transgender. "They tell you what time you have to go to bed, what time you have to get up, and force you to be rehabilitated," Boden, who was once homeless himself, said. "It's because the [operating mindset] is that you fucked up, that something's wrong with you. Not because federal cuts to housing programs under Reagan were never replenished."
That isn't to say shelters don’t have their place. In New York, when it gets extremely hot or cold, these facilities offer a desperate population an indoor place to stay safe from the elements. And, as the weather becomes increasingly erratic in California—extreme heat south, extreme cold north, wildfire smoke blanketing everywhere for what may be a longer stretch every year—more emergency shelter is definitely needed, according to advocates. But what New York’s shelter system offers—and what California is ostensibly trying to mimic—isn't anything resembling a lasting solution to homelessness, they argue.
Pete White, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an activist organization that works on poverty and related issues, pointed to what he described as the top three causes of homelessness: housing unavailability, housing costs, and poverty. Shelters do nothing to alleviate any of them, he said.
"We know empirically that the crisis is driven and exacerbated by a lack of permanent housing," White said. "There is no way we fix the situation by using a 1980s New York solution to solve a 2019 problem."
One potential solution White proposed for Los Angeles was, rather than selling public land to developers, that the city retain it, put it in a community land trust or long-term agreement with non-profit organizations, and build innovative homes that are much cheaper than standard development. "We already have the land," he said. "Let's not talk about shelters, let's build homes. The technology is there."
For their part, advocates of proposed reforms in California insist they know housing is the problem. But they think shelters are a backstop in the interim.
"We have a long-term plan to build housing for people who are unsheltered, but we cannot continue with the reality that while we fix this problem that we are OK with 90,000 people being on the street," Steinberg told the LA Times.
So, what's the disconnect? One way to clarify the situation, critics say, is to consider the possibility that California’s proposed "right to shelter" plan is—like many policies regarding homelessness across America—less concerned with assisting homeless people, and more about satiating the people who have places to go home to every night.
Look no further than what was likely to be the most contentious element proposed in California's version: forcing people to accept shelter.
Opponents say that veers toward, well, jailing people for being poor. But this provision may also reveal the hidden legal savvy behind the proposal. The recent Martin v. Boise federal court decision—which essentially says cities can't arrest people for sleeping on public property unless they also provide adequate indoor shelter—leaves municipalities open to lawsuits if homeless folks outnumber shelter beds. So something like opening up a shuttered downtown jail as a shelter may satisfy the requirement, even if no one uses it.
The larger conversation struck many homelessness advocates as typical of how elected officials view their constituents who are homeless—as a problem to deal with, not a population to consider.
"The people coming up with these ideas are not talking to, or engaging with, homeless people," Bee said. "It's bureaucrats who have never been homeless themselves, or not immersed themselves into the whole reality of homelessness. It’s a whole other world out here."
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