New York City's mayor, Eric Adams, has always hailed New York City's right to shelter law as evidence of the city's compassion and its concern for the homeless and the destitute. Now, the mayor must make the decision as to whether he will allow homeless people to sleep outside as a legal right. This is a notable departure for the city as for many years, crews of police and sanitation have been sent to clear homeless encampments. That scenario may be changing in the boroughs as last month, the City Council unanimously approved a "Homeless Bill of Rights" marking New York as the first major US city to establish a right to sleep in some public spaces.
Included in the nine rights granted to the homeless are making sure those seeking shelter are not forced into facilities that don't correspond to their gender identity. The bill also allows people to apply for rental assistance, and requires diapers be given to parents who are in shelters with babies.
In a statement to ABC 7, Taysha Milagros Clark, a policy and data analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, said, "This is a sensible and compassionate policy response to unprecedented homelessness. The bill of rights really encompasses an understanding that homeless people do have rights. They haven't violated any laws or anything of the sort just by virtue of their homeless status," she said. "It is a stark departure from what this administration has done."
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams, said the mayor was still evaluating the measure.
"Since Day One of this administration, Mayor Adams has been focused on helping New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and connecting them with a clean, safe place to rest their heads at night," Levy said.
It remains unclear how the proposed right to sleep outdoors might work in actual practice. New York City does not permit setting up campsites. Most city parks close their gates at 1 a.m. Sidewalks, roads, and privately owned spaces are prohibited for use as a sleeping site. By law, New York City is required to guarantee space to anyone in need, but the system has been maxed out, partially due to a recent flood of immigrants who have entered the US along our southern border. The city's shelter system housed 81,000 people last week.
Some homeless people prefer the streets as they find the shelters too dangerous or crowded.
Jumaane Williams, New York City's elected public advocate and a sponsor of the homeless rights measure now before Adams, said he would like the city to focus less on preventing encampments and more on addressing what he says are the roots of the crisis: rising housing costs, joblessness, racism, addiction, and mental illness.
"I think we're in dire situations for things that have been decades in the making," Williams said.